Who Is a “Supervisor”? The U.S. Supreme Court Weighs In

By  Glenn A. Duhl, Esq. & Angelica M. Wilson, Esq.

Supervisor.175152903_stdWho is a supervisor? Is it the individual who hires prospective employees? The individual who creates the daily or weekly schedule? The individual who delegates daily tasks? The individual who awards raises? Are all of these individuals considered to be supervisors? And why does it matter?

In a June 24, 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Court weighed in on who is considered a “supervisor” for the purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII. Vicarious liability is where, for example, the acts of an individual are binding on the employer. In Vance v. Ball State University, our nation’s highest court held that an employee is considered a supervisor for these purposes only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions.

As a quick refresher, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his or her compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment on the basis of that individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In addition to prohibiting discrimination with respect to employment decisions such as termination, demotion and pay cuts, Title VII reaches the creation or perpetuation of a discriminatory or hostile work environment.

How does this relate to whether an individual is considered to be a supervisor in the workplace? In the context of workplace harassment claims, if the hostile environment is created by an individual’s co-worker, an employer can be held liable only for its own negligence with respect to the behavior. But if the hostile environment flows from an individual’s supervisor, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the supervisor’s actions, making it easier for the individual to prove an employer’s liability.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court held that an employee is a supervisor only if he or she is empowered to take “tangible employment actions.” What is a “tangible employment action”? According to the Court, it is to effect a “significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” In settling on this definition, the Court rejected a broader, open-ended approach, which would have tied supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant discretion over another’s daily work.

The Court acknowledged that the term supervisor has “varying meanings in colloquial usage and in the law.” Nevertheless, for the purpose of describing a class of employees whose misconduct may give rise to vicarious liability, the term describes employees who “could bring the official power of the enterprise to bear on subordinates.” A supervisor is more than someone who has the ability to direct another employee’s daily work activities, or who controls the day-to-day schedule and tasks—a supervisor must have more power, such as the ability to hire, fire or promote the employee, in order to bind the employer.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision provides clarification and direction to employers with respect to which employees may be considered supervisors for the purposes of vicarious liability, and will allow employers to more actively and consciously delegate responsibilities to employees with an eye to the future.

Glenn A. Duhl and Angelica M. Wilson are management-side employment and litigation lawyers at Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck, P.C. They represent management in preventive employment law and litigation of all employment matters. Please visit www.siegeloconnor.com.    

The information contained in this article is general in nature and offered for informational purposes only. It is not offered and should not be construed as legal advice. 


(Image courtesy of mnsu.edu)