When can an employer be liable for damages in a hostile work environment or harassment lawsuit filed by an employee? One important issue is whether the employee was harassed by a coworker or by a supervisor. The Ninth Circuit, which includes the state of Washington, had decided that a supervisor is someone who has authority over the employee and oversees the employee’s work. However, the Supreme Court ruled this June that a person is only a supervisor if he has the ability to take tangible actions such as hiring, firing, promotion, or reassignment.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
The caseVance v. Ball State University (available online here), involves a hostile work environment claim that Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, brought against her employer Ball State University (BSU). Ms. Vance worked as a catering assistant at BSU alongside Saundra Davis, a white woman who was employed as a catering specialist. Ms. Vance claimed that Ms. Davis had subjected her to harassment and discrimination on account of her race. According to Ms. Vance, Ms. Davis glared at her, slammed pots and pans around the kitchen, blocked her in an elevator, gave her weird looks, and intimidated her.
Ms. Vance sued BSU, arguing that Ms. Davis was her supervisor and that BSU should be liable for the hostile work environment that Ms. Davis created. BSU argued that it was not liable and that Ms. Davis was not a supervisor because she did not have the power to take “tangible employment actions” such as hiring, firing, transferring, promoting, demoting, or disciplining Ms. Vance. The Supreme Court decided in favor of BSU and ruled that a supervisor is someone who can take tangible employment actions against the harassed employee.
Vance’s Effect on Washington Hostile Work Environment and Harassment Lawsuits
The Supreme Court’s decision in Vance specifies who counts as a supervisor when an employee sues his employer under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. This issue is important, because stricter standards apply to the employer if the harassment was committed by the employee’s supervisor, as opposed to just another coworker. In some cases, whether an employer is held to stricter standards could make or break the lawsuit.
In Title VII cases before Vance, a supervisor could be someone who had authority over the employee and directed his work. Now, a person must have the power to take tangible employment actions to be considered a supervisor, even if he oversees the employee’s work. While this new definition is narrower, it does not shield employers from liability. Even if the harassing employee is just a coworker, the employer can be liable if he knew or should have known about the harassment.
Finally, it is important to note that the Supreme Court’s ruling technically only applies to cases brought under Title VII. This means that Vance might not apply to a lawsuit brought under a state law such as the Washington Law Against Discrimination. If you have questions about harassment or hostile work environment claims, feel free to contact an employment lawyer.