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How Does the Supreme Court’s Definition of “Supervisor” Affect Harassment Claims?

On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court made it harder for employees to sue their employers for harassment by narrowing the definition of “supervisor.”

In Vance v. Ball State University, the plaintiff, catering assistant Maetta Vance, claimed she was harassed by a coworker she considered her supervisor. An employer is legally responsible for a supervisor who is guilty of harassment. However, according to the court, a supervisor “is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim,” explained Chief Justice Samuel Alito.

In other words, a supervisor has the power to hire, fire, promote or reassign. Since Vance’s coworker didn’t have such authority, Vance could not sue the university.

The ruling nullified the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition that a supervisor is simply an employee who oversees another employee’s work on a regular basis.

The court voted 5-4 in favor of the employer — a win for employers facing similar harassment claims. If an employee accused of racism, sexism or retaliation is just a coworker of the accuser, the company can defend itself by proving it did not neglect the complaint. The accuser can still sue the company for failing to end the harassment, but the company will not be held liable if it took corrective actions.

Here in California, the courts would likely reach the opposite result. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act adopts a broader definition of supervisor and specifically includes “the responsibility to direct employees” as a basis for finding supervisor status so long as that individual exercises independent judgment. (Cal. Govt. Code Section 12926(s), Chapman v. Enos (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 920, 930.) In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court stated its “tangible employment action” test to be an “easily workable” and “brightline” rule that makes determining supervisor status something that can be “readily determined” based on documentation and addressed earlier in litigation.

With the new decision from the country’s highest court favoring employers, California employers defending harassment claims under the FEHA may wish to consider asserting the same logical argument, but should first carefully evaluate the issue with counsel.

To learn more about the ruling, click here.


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