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Supreme Court Limits Title VII Strict Liability by Narrowing the Definition of Supervisor

In a decision welcomed by employers, the United States Supreme Court defined “supervisors” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as only those individuals who are empowered to take employment actions against an alleged victim. The decision narrows the group of employees whose actions will subject employers to automatic liability and provides a simple definition for employers to understand, removing some ambiguity from this area of the law. In Vance v. Ball State University et al., the high court addressed which employees qualify as “supervisors.” Under Title VII, the identity of a worker’s alleged harasser often dictates the employer’s liability. Pursuant to Supreme Court precedent, employers are liable for harassment perpetrated by a victim’s co-worker only if the employer negligently allows the harassment to occur; however, employers are automatically liable under Title VII if a “supervisor” harasses an employee, resulting in a significant change in employment status for the victim—e.g. discharge or failure to promote. Title VII does not use the term “supervisor,” but previous Supreme Court decisions adopted the supervisor/co-worker framework (Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. Boca Raton). Using that precedent as a guide, the Supreme Court majority—the Court’s conservative wing and swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy—reasoned that an individual’s ability to take tangible action against the alleged victim is the defining characteristic of a supervisor. The majority rejected an EEOC Guidance that further included employees who direct the day-to-day activities of a worker. The Court’s liberal justices dissented.