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Employment Blog

Supreme Court Hands Employers Victory: Court Adopts Narrow Definition of "Supervisor" in Sex Harassment Cases

Authored by Ruder Ware Attorneys
Posted on June 25, 2013
Filed under Employment

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its long-awaited opinion in the Vance v. Ball State case (find a copy of the opinion here). The Court established the proper definition of "supervisor" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which governs, among other things, sexual harassment under federal law). The Court espoused the Seventh Circuit approach (the Seventh Circuit includes Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana), which narrowly defined the term "supervisor" to include only those personnel who are vested with authority to take so-called tangible employment actions (e.g., have authority to fire, demote, make certain salary adjustments, etc.). Through the Vance v. Ball State opinion, the Court rejected an alternative definition of "supervisor" adopted by other federal courts, which more broadly defined the term "supervisor" to include personnel who lack authority to take tangible employment actions, but merely have authority to direct daily work activities. The Court's decision is significant because for purposes of Title VII, whether a "supervisor" is the alleged harasser makes a big difference if a "supervisor's" harassment results in a tangible employment action, the employer is strictly liable for the harassment. However, if a mere co-worker is responsible for the harassment, the employer is liable only if it is negligent in addressing the harassment.