Bad News for Workers in the Supreme Court's Vance Case

Today the Supreme Court's decision in Vance v. Ball State University reset the rule for when an employer may be held vicariously liable for an employee's harassment. Finding an employer liable for unlawful harassment by supervisors is now more difficult. This 5-4 decision is another win for business that twists the law and ignores reality to the detriment of harassed workers.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects workers against discrimination, including protection against racial and sexual harassment. The law also provides standards to hold an employer vicariously liable when supervisors harass their employees. Vance, however, significantly and unrealistically limits who counts as a supervisor when it comes to workplace harassment.

Under today's ruling, a supervisor is only considered to be a person who has authority to take "tangible employment action," which the Court announced means only someone who can make "significant change [to a worker's] employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." In short, fewer people count as a supervisor than you might think. Unless a harassing boss qualifies under this narrow definition of "supervisor," the employer is not automatically held accountable. So if someone who harasses you at work has the authority to direct your work conditions and what you do from day-to-day, the law must now treat that person as if he or she were simply another coworker. That just doesn't reflect how workplaces really operate.

This happened to Vance, an African-American woman who brought a law suit against her employer, Ball State University, alleging violation of Title VII from a racially hostile work environment created by a university employee with the authority to direct Vance's work. Vance complained that Saundra Davis, who she considered a supervisor, used terms like "Buckwheat" and "Sambo" to refer to Vance, threatened to physically attack her, and caused her to live in a state of constant fear. Because the Court rejected the definition of "supervisor" that was adopted by several courts of appeal and advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidance, Vance's employer was not found vicariously liable for the workplace harassment and Vance was left without redress.

The Court has held in the past that a primary objective of Title VII is to avoid future discrimination. A cramped, unrealistic definition of supervisor – one that makes it easier for corporate employers to escape liability for illegal actions of employees who actually have day to day authority over others – accomplishes exactly the opposite of what the law intends.

Four Supreme Court Justices joined in dissent to explain:

The limitation the Court decrees [in Vance] diminishes the force of [precedent], ignores the conditions under which members of the work force labor, and disserves the objective of Title VII to prevent discrimination from infecting the Nation's workplaces.

For workers, Vance means it's now harder to be protected against discrimination.

PFAW Foundation