In a decision that narrows the ability of plaintiffs to pursue "supervisor" harassment claims, the Supreme Court held that an employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. Vance v. Ball State University et al., No. 11-556 (June 24, 2013).

The case arose when Maetta Vance sued her employer, Ball State University ("BSU"), alleging a fellow employee created a racially hostile work environment. Under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), an employer’s liability for workplace harassment depends in part on the status of the harasser. If the harasser is a co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. On the other hand, if the harasser is a "supervisor" and the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, the employer is strictly liable. However, if there is no tangible employment action, the employer may escape liability if (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior, and (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.

Because the parties in this case agreed the co-worker did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance, the dispute centered on whether she could nonetheless, qualify as a "supervisor," with Vance arguing that her co-worker wielded sufficient leadership responsibilities to do so. The district court found that BSU could not be held vicariously liable for the co-workers’ alleged actions because she could not take tangible employment actions against Vance. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, because under its existing precedent supervisor status requires "the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee."

The Supreme Court agreed with the Seventh Circuit and held that an employee must be empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions in order to be considered a "supervisor" under Title VII. Writing for a five-justice majority, Justice Alito observed that the term "supervisor" lacks sufficiently specific meaning in general usage for the Court’s analysis to rely on that usage. Moreover, because Congress did not actually use the term "supervisor" in Title VII, the term must be understood with reference to the interpretation that best fits within the "highly structured" framework the Court adopted in Faragher and Ellerth. According to the Court, the answer to the question now before it was "implicit" in that framework, which draws a sharp line between co-workers and supervisors, contemplates a unitary category of supervisors, and implies that the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor.

The Court observed that the interpretation it endorsed can be readily applied. By contrast, the "nebulous" approach advocated by the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance, which would tie supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant discretion over another’s daily work, would make the determination of supervisor status depend on a highly case-specific evaluation of numerous factors.

The Court also observed that its approach will not leave employees unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks. In such cases, a victim can prevail simply by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur, and the jury should be instructed that the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor in determining negligence. Finally, the Court observed that its interpretation of "supervisor" accounts for the fact that many modern organizations have abandoned a hierarchical management structure in favor of giving employees overlapping authority with respect to work assignments.

In a dissent joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Justice Ginsburg wrote that by limiting the definition of "supervisor," the majority diminishes the force of Faragher and Ellerth, ignores the conditions under which members of the work force labor, and "disserves the objective of Title VII to prevent discrimination from infecting the Nation’s workplaces."