In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that team leads do not qualify as supervisors for purposes of federal anti-discrimination law, meaning that when a team lead harasses another employee, the employer will only be liable for the harassment if it did not take reasonable steps to prevent and stop the harassment. Vance v. Ball State University (No. 11-556, June 24, 2013).

This decision weakens the position of employees who have been victims of a non-supervisory coworker. Employees in this situation must now prove not only that the harassment did occur and that it was based on an unlawful motive, but also that their employer was negligent in allowing it to occur.

Title VII makes employers strictly liable for harassment perpetrated by its supervisory employees if the harassment culminated in a significant change in the victim’s employment status, such as termination, demotion, failure to promote, etc. If the harassment did not result in a significant change in employment status, the employer will not be liable if 1) it took reasonable care to prevent and correct harassment, and 2) the harassed employee failed to take reasonable advantage of preventative or corrective measures offered by the employer.

The case decided by the Supreme Court on this issue involved an African-American woman who alleged that her coworker (a team lead) created a hostile work environment resulting from race-based harassment. The Supreme Court examined in this case whether a team lead could be considered a supervisor for purposes of Title VII. The court determined that unless the harasser has authority to make significant changes to the employee’s employment status, such hiring, firing, or making significant changes in benefits, etc., he or she is not a supervisor, and the employer is not strictly liable for his or her harassing actions.

In rendering its opinion, the Supreme Court expressed concern that allowing for a broad definition of "supervisor" for purposes of Title VII would complicate decisions on these cases when they went before a jury. A jury would have to receive two very different sets of instruction before deliberating on the case – one to apply if it found that the harasser was a supervisor and another if the harasser was a mere coworker.

The Supreme Court recognized that the situation faced by the employee in this case – in a "team lead" relationship where a coworker controls some of her daily work assignments – is increasingly common. However, it dismissed the concern that employers could avoid liability in most situations by transforming most of its management into "team lead"-type positions, and keeping the real authority to alter employment status with a select few. The court stated that in such a situation, those with the ultimate authority to take significant employment actions would still likely be forced to rely on the input of lower-level employees and would therefore be deemed to have delegated their supervisory authority to these team leads. Presumably, this would restore the employer’s strict liability for the harassment of the team lead on whom upper management relied to take action against an employee.

* This information is provided by the attorneys at Passman& Kaplan, P.C., a law firm dedicated to the representation of federal employees worldwide. For more information on Passman& Kaplan, P.C., go to http://www.passmanandkaplan.com.

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