Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The Court's long awaited opinion in Fisher v. Texas overshadowed most everything else in legal news yesterday, but lest we forget the Court also decided Vance v. Ball State University. For the most part, Vance is an employment case that just happens to arise in the context of higher education. But since a lot of employment cases just happen to happen in schools, it is worth noting. The issue before the Court was what type of employees fall in the category of "supervisor." The meaning of supervisor is important under Title VII cases, as it dictates the employer's liability in harassment cases. The Court explained:
Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for workplace harassment maydepend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. In cases in which the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, different rules apply. If the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action (i.e., “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,” Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.
S. 742, 761), the employer is strictly liable. But if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may escape liability by establishing, as an affirmative defense, 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 theemployer provided. Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U. S. 775, 807; Ellerth, supra, at 765.
In short, "An employee is a 'supervisor' for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer totake tangible employment actions against the victim." The Court's holding was at odds with the EEOC's interpretation, as well as that of the some courts of appeals.