EMPLOYMENT LIABILITY FOR WORKPLACE HARASSMENT « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


U.S. Supreme Court Decision Slims Down

Super-Sized Supervisor Definition

Under federal and California law, employer liability for workplace harassment can depend entirely on the legal definition of a “supervisor.” The U.S. Supreme Court has recently clarified that definition under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Vance v. Ball State University (June 24, 2013).

Narrow Definition for “Supervisor” under Federal Law: Indiana’s BSU employed catering assistant Maetta Vance, an African-American female. She sued employer BSU alleging her white female supervisor Saundra Davis created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. That federal law makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate – and by extension, to harass – a worker because of his/her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Vance alleged Davis would glare at her, slam pots and pans in her vicinity and “intimidate” her. She claimed Davis would often give her “weird” looks and would stand there with her catering cart “smiling.”

The case focused whether BSU could be held automatically (vicariously) liable even if BSU had had no notice of Davis’s actions and thus no opportunity to investigate and halt any unlawful conduct. If Davis had been Vance’s supervisor for purposes of Title VII, then BSU could be vicariously liable for such harassment. If, however, Davis was Vance’s co-worker, then BSU would only be liable if it negligently controlled working conditions (e.g., if the university had some notice of the alleged hostile environment and yet had done nothing effective to stop it).

As the lower court held BSU had responded reasonably to the incidents of which it was aware, BSU’s liability in this case depended solely on whether Davis was a supervisor or merely a co-worker.

Before this Vance decision, the federal courts defined whether an alleged harasser was a “supervisor” under Title VII in either of two ways. Some courts held an employee is not a supervisor unless he or she has the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline the alleged victim. Other courts adhered to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) more open-ended approach which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise “significant discretion” over the alleged victim’s daily work.

BSU argued it could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged harassment because Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. Vance argued Davis was a supervisor because Davis had the authority to control Vance’s daily activities and evaluate her performance, thus falling within the EEOC’s open-ended definition of a supervisor.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with BSU in holding an employee is a “supervisor” under Title VII only if the employer empowers that person to take “tangible employment actions” against the other, e.g., authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline. Thus, BSU was not liable with respect to Davis’ alleged conduct.

California’s Broader Definition of Supervisor is Likely Unaffected: Although this is an important decision affecting workplace harassment cases brought under Title VII, it will likely have little to no impact on employment discrimination cases brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

FEHA specifically defines “supervisor” more broadly as any person having the authority to hire, transfer, discharge other employees, or the responsibility to direct them, adjust their grievances, or effective to effectively recommend tangible employment actions. Thus, under FEHA, a person such as Davis tasked with the responsibility to direct an employee’s daily duties (i.e. a team leader) is a “supervisor” even if lacking direct authority to hire, fire, promote or transfer the employee.

Minimally, all American employers no matter where located should train their supervisors to recognize and prevent harassing conduct and closely monitor co-worker interactions to ensure a safe, harassment-free working environment.

For help to employers on how to structure, administer or enforce proper policies and handbooks to avoid expensive lawsuits, please contact our firm’s attorneys Tim Bowles or Cindy Bamforth.