In a development that could have far reaching implications for employers, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case, Vance v. Ball State University, in which the central issue is the definition of “supervisor” for purposes of determining an employer’s liability for harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”).  Under Title VII, if the alleged harasser is a supervisor, liability is generally imputed to the employer (unless the employer can show they it had an effective anti-harassment policy that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to utilize).  On the other hand, if a hostile work environment is created by co-workers, not supervisors, the employer is liable only if the plaintiff proves that the employer failed to take reasonable measures to stop the harassment, a considerably more difficult standard for plaintiffs.

Although determining whether an employee is a “supervisor” is important in many cases, neither Title VII nor Supreme Court case law specifically defines the term.  However, various circuit courts have crafted their own definitions of “supervisor” and two primary definitions have emerged.  The First, Seventh and Eighth Circuits define a “supervisor” as an employee who possesses the power to make “consequential employment decisions” such as decisions about hiring and firing, promotions and demotions, and disciplinary actions.  In contrast, the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits (as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have adopted a broader definition, holding that an individual qualifies as an employee’s supervisor if the individual:  (1) has authority to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the employee; or (2) has authority to direct the employee’s daily work activities.  Under this broader definition, far more employees are “supervisors” and, as a result, may potentially subject their employers to vicarious liability.

In Vance, the plaintiff worked in Ball State University’s catering department.  She alleged that another employee, Davis, subjected her to racially discriminatory remarks.  According to the plaintiff, Davis directed her work and was, therefore, a “supervisor.”  The district court granted summary judgment to Ball State, holding that Davis was not a supervisor because she did not have the power to hire, fire, or discipline Vance.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Whether the Supreme Court, in deciding Vance and resolving the split among the circuit courts, adopts a narrow or expansive definition of “supervisor” will have a significant effect on employer exposure in harassment suits.  If the Supreme Court adopts a broader definition, the pool of employees who can potentially subject their employers to vicarious liability will be significantly greater, likely resulting in more suits against employers.  Moreover, it will be more difficult for employers to prevail at the summary judgment stage of litigation, because a more fact-based inquiry will be needed to determine whether someone is a supervisor.  While it is relatively straightforward to show whether an employee is responsible for hiring, firing, promotions and the like, the broader standard requires a more detailed examination of the employee’s role.

Oral argument is scheduled for November and a decision is expected early next year.