Who Is a Supervisor and Why Does It Matter? Part III

The Supreme Court has issued a decision that may make it more difficult for employees to hold their employers responsible for harassment by mid- or low-level supervisors. On June 24th, the Supreme Court announced its ruling in Vance v. Ball State University, a case we posted about in November. In Vance, an African-American kitchen worker claimed that her co-worker, Saundra Davis, subjected her to racial slurs and violence. Vance argued that Ball State was liable for Davis’s conduct because Davis was her supervisor. At issue was the definition of the word “supervisor.” The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled that Davis could not be considered a supervisor; on June 24th, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the Seventh Circuit.

The Court narrowed the definition of “supervisor,” stating that “an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim.” The court ruled that a supervisor is someone authorized to take “tangible employment actions” such as hiring, firing, promoting, demoting or reassigning employees to significantly different responsibilities. As we emphasized in our previous post, this decision makes it even more important for harassment victims to make prompt and complete internal complaints.