Who's In Charge Here? The United States Supreme Court Defines "Supervisor"
Posted August 19, 2013

In Vance v. Ball State University, et al., issued on June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court narrowed the legal meaning of the term “supervisor” for employment-related claims under the federal Title VII discrimination statute. The Court held that an employer is strictly liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only if the alleged harasser has been empowered by the employer with the specific authority “to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”

This holding is not consistent with California law, which has applied a broader analysis of the term “supervisor” under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Per the FEHA, “supervisor” means “any individual having the authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, layoff, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or the responsibility to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend that action.” The exercise of that authority must not be of a merely routine or clerical nature, but instead requires the use of independent judgment. Under California law, if an employee falls within this broad definition of “supervisor,” the employer will be strictly liable for any unlawful harassment by that supervisory employee even if the supervisor has no direct authority “to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”

California employers cannot rely upon the holding in Vance to escape strict liability in a California state court action. However, of particular note, the California definition of “supervisor” is derived directly from the National Labor Relations Act, Section 2(11). The Vance Court, however, found that section of the NLRA to be, “inapposite in the context of Title VII” and “not controlling in this context.” Accordingly, it is unclear how the Vance decision will impact future California’s statutory or decisional law surrounding the legal meaning of “supervisor.”

For questions about strict liability for supervisor harassment, or any other employment law issue, please contact any of our employment attorneys at LightGabler.