How a Recent Supreme Court Ruling Affects Employer Harassment Cases

A June 24, 2013 decision by the United States Supreme Court has changed the definition of a supervisor. This decision affects employer harassment cases brought under federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

When a co-worker harasses a worker, the employer is liable only when the employer was negligent in controlling working conditions. However, if the harasser is a supervisor, then the court may hold the employer strictly liable for the supervisor’s actions. Therefore, in assessing an employer’s liability, it is important to know the legal criteria that differentiate a supervisor from a mere co-worker.

In its Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines a supervisor as:

  • An individual with authority to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the employee, such as hiring, firing, promoting, demoting and reassigning the employee.
  • An individual with authority to direct the employee’s daily work activities.

In its decision in Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court held, with a narrow four to three majority, that a supervisor is an individual with authority to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the employee. In other words, the Court accepted only the first alternative in the EEOC’s definition. The Court discarded the EEOC’s second alternative, that a supervisor could be a person with authority to direct the employee’s daily work activities. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito stated that the second alternative of “EEOC’s definition of a supervisor … is a study in ambiguity.”

With a narrower definition of what a supervisor is, it is more important than ever to consult a competent NYC workplace harassment attorney if you are the victim of harassment at work by your supervisor

 

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