Last week, the Supreme Court delivered an opinion in Vance v. Ball State University, answering the question of who qualifies as a “supervisor” under Title VII; their decision is going to have a big impact on dozens of active employment law cases.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides that it is “an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e—(2)(a)(1).

There are different levels of employer liability depending on who the harasser is. If the harasser is a supervisor, the employer is vicariously (i.e., automatically) liable under Title VII. The Equal Opportunity Commission and several lower courts have butted heads over the meaning of “supervisor.” The EEOC has maintained that a supervisor is anyone with “the ability to exercise significant direction over another’s daily work” while the courts have applied a more stringent standard (the ability of the person to undertake “tangible employment actions”, discussed below).

In this case, Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, claimed that Saundra Davis, her white co-worker, was creating a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Vance (a “catering assistant”) claimed that Davis (a “catering specialist”) was her supervisor, entitling her to Title VII protections; her employer, Ball State University, contended that Davis was not a supervisor because she did not have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance.”

In a 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Alito, the Court sided with Ball State, stating that a “supervisor” is someone who has the ability to take “tangible employment actions” (i.e., an act which causes “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”). This ruling rejects Vance’s and the EEOC’s “nebulous” definition of supervisor, saying it creates undue confusion among judges and jurors. Vance lost for two reasons: (1) Davis was not a “supervisor” because she did not have the power to take tangible employment actions against Vance; and (2) Vance was not able to show that Ball State was negligent or unreasonable in how they handled the situation.

What does Ball State mean for employees?

Unfortunately, this decision has limited the scope of employees’ Title VII rights and makes it harder for victims of harassment to sue right away. However, if a non-supervisor coworker is harassing you (see these blog posts for discussions of what “harassment” really is), your employer still has obligations to fulfill. Because harassment from any source can contribute to a volatile work environment, you can still complain to your employer, who then must take action to prevent the harassment from occurring again. If your employer is negligent in taking action and the harassment continues, you may have a valid Title VII claim. As the Court stated, “an employer will always be liable when its negligence leads to the creation or continuation of a hostile work environment.” If you feel that you have been subjected to illegal discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, then you should contact a South Carolina employment lawyer.