A recent decision by the Supreme Court limits employer liability in certain harassment cases. Workplace harassment based on sex, race, or national origin is strictly prohibited by Title VII; however, under the statute, employers will be held strictly liable in harassment suits, only when the harasser is a “supervisor.” If the harasser is an employee, then the victim must meet the burden of the negligence standard.
Unfortunately, the term, supervisor, is vague and remains undefined by Title VII. While many employees operate under a formal supervisory title, many lower-level employees are in charge of scheduling and assigning work, as well as directing other employees.
In Vance v. Ball State University, the plaintiff worked in a university kitchen as a catering assistant. She took most of her orders from the catering specialist, and she claimed that while working there she was harassed and assigned to unnecessary menial tasks because of her race. The plaintiff complained multiple times of the racial discrimination. However, the problem was never resolved. This resulted in the plaintiff filing a complaint in federal court, alleging that she suffered a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII. She further advanced that the catering specialist was her supervisor and responsible for the hostile environment.
The court held that the catering specialist was not the plaintiff’s supervisor, and thus the employer — Ball State University — could not be held vicariously liable. Upon hearing the case, the 7th Circuit determined supervisor liability only adheres when the harasser has “the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee.” Since the plaintiff did not demonstrate that the catering specialist had requisite control over her employment, the plaintiff could not recover.
The Supreme Court ruled on the issue and in a recent 5-4 ruling determined, that for purposes of Title VII, employees can only count as supervisors when the have the power to hire, fire, and promote. Title VII itself does not define the term “supervisor.” Thus, the circuit split is resolved.
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