In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court considered the definition of supervisor to determine employers’ liability for workplace harassment . At the heart of the case was the issue of whether a supervisor was an employee with authority to direct and oversee work or, an employee who had the power to take employment actions such as hiring, firing, demotion, promotion, or discipline on a harassment victim.
The importance of the distinction
Making this distinction was important because under the Civil Rights Act, the position of the harasser affects the level of employer liability. For example, if the harasser is only the victim’s coworker, the employer is only liable if it failed to control working conditions. However, if the harasser is a supervisor and some action is taken against the victim, the employer is exposed to a higher level of liability.
Even when no definitive action is taken, the employer is still required to show that reasonable action was taken to prevent and quickly correct any harassment. Further, the employer would also need to show that the harassed employee failed to avail themselves of preventive or corrective opportunities the employer provided.
In the Vance case, a female employee filed a suit against her employer, alleging that another employee created a racially hostile work environment. In both the district court and the appeals court, the employer was found not liable because the harassing employee was not a supervisor.
The plaintive took the case to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 vote the high court ruled that, for the purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII, an employee is a supervisor only if they have the authority to take tangible employment actions against the victim.
Talk to a NY Employment Law Attorney About Your Harassment Policies
A harassment lawsuit against your company can have devastating effects. A NY employment law attorney can provide advice and guidance on how to best craft your harassment policies so your company is protected. Stephen D. Hans & Associates has helped New York employers develop company policies that protect them against lawsuits for 34 years. To discuss your harassment policies or other employment law matters, contact our office or call (718)275-6700 to schedule an appointment.