Who’s in charge? Why the definition of supervisor matters

guestFor employers, questions about who is liable for employees’ actions and who is a supervisor are becoming frequent concerns in employment litigation. Since 1999, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reinforced that employers should have a clearer standard when determining who is liable for the actions of a employees. A recent decision by the United States Supreme Court in Vance v. Ball State University simplified some of the complexities.

Examining the facts

By Richard AuBuchon, Polsinelli LLC

By Richard AuBuchon, Polsinelli LLC

The plaintiff, Maetta Vance, filed a lawsuit in 2006 stating that her coworker Saundra Davis created a hostile working environment.

Vance accused Davis of “giving her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her and intimidating her,” “blocking” her at the elevator, and giving her “weird” looks.

Ball State University, unable to resolve the dispute, was ultimately sued by Vance, who cited violations of Title VII and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vance alleged that Davis was her supervisor and that the university was liable for Davis’s actions.

However, the courts saw it differently.

Defining supervisor

Generally, if employers are found negligent in controlling work conditions, they are liable for the acts of an employee. However, an employer can be vicariously liable for the acts of a supervisor with hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassigning, or changing benefits. If an employer’s supervisor fails to take any tangible employment action, liability can be avoided by proving the employer “exercised reasonable care” to remedy the situation and that the plaintiff did not “take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities” of the employer.

Early in the lawsuit, it is important to determine if the employee is a supervisor; a supervisor who takes certain actions makes the employer vicariously liable. Determining if an employee qualifies as a supervisor early in the litigation allows the employer to focus on affirmative defenses or whether the employee must prove negligence; litigation will be reduced significantly.

Since 1999, the EEOC’s definition of supervisor was an individual who is authorized “to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the employee,” including “hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, and reassigning the employee” or an individual authorized “to direct the employee’s daily work activities.”

But including that second statement as a test for whether an employee is a supervisor is a recipe for trouble. The issue of who is a supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability causes litigation to be more expensive and complex and ultimately creates confusion for the jury during deliberations.

Refining the definition

Ball State University fought back and won at every level of the trial court. In the end, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where the university also won.

The Court went to great lengths to establish a more definitive measure of who is a supervisor. The Court’s ruling stated: “An employee is a supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.” A tangible employment action mirrors the EEOC’s language and includes “hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a change in benefits.” The university was not liable because Davis did not have control over those duties and was not, as the courts defined it, a supervisor as Vance alleged.

For employers, a key point is that the case did not abolish vicarious liability, and the long-standing rules of direct liability for employers via negligence remain. Yet, the case did simplify navigating vicarious liability by distinguishing who qualifies as a supervisor. This victory is small but significant for employers facing employment litigation and for courts ruling on similar cases in the Show-Me State.

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