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When is an Employee a “Supervisor”?

 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the creation of a harassing hostile work environment based on sex or race. To hold the employer liable for the harassment, the plaintiff must show that the work environment was so pervaded by discrimination that the terms and conditions of employment were altered. Isolated or trivial occurrences are not likely to be sufficient.

If the harassing employee is the victim’s coworker, that is, someone no higher in the chain of command than the victim is, the employer is liable under Title VII only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. However, if a supervisor’s harassment of an employee culminates in a tangible employment action, such as a termination or a demotion, the employer is strictly liable under Title VII.

When, as is very often the case in harassment litigation, there has been no tangible employment action taken against an employee who is harassed by a supervisor, under prior U.S. Supreme Court precedents the employer may escape liability under Title VII by establishing s two-pronged affirmative defense. The employer must prove that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior, and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.

Recently the Supreme Court clarified the issue of when a harassing fellow worker is a “supervisor” and not merely a coworker for purposes of making the employer entity liable for that harassment. In the case before the Court, the plaintiff was an African-American employee in a university’s catering department. She alleged that a white employee to whom she had been assigned as an assistant harassed her by using racial epithets and relegating her to menial jobs because of her race.

The plaintiff argued that the harasser was the plaintiff’s “supervisor” for Title VII purposes because the harasser had been given the ability to exercise significant direction over the plaintiff’s work, a power that also enabled her to racially harass the plaintiff. In this argument the plaintiff had no less an ally than the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had taken basically the same position in an enforcement guidance it had issued.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim, finding that for a harassing individual to be considered a “supervisor” under Title VII, with all that means for employer liability, a more demanding and restrictive definition of “supervisor” was appropriate. Unlike the harasser in the case before it, whose powers over the plaintiff did not extend beyond generally directing her daily activities, a fellow employee will be considered a supervisor only when the employer has empowered that employee to effect a significant change in the victim’s employment status.

To be a supervisor, the employee must be empowered to take tangible employment actions against the victim such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.

Actual resolution of legal issues depends upon many factors, including variations of facts and state laws. This post is not intended to provide legal advice on specific subjects, but rather to provide insight into legal developments and issues. The reader should always consult with legal counsel before taking action on matters covered by this post.