Most of our clients are keenly interested in protecting themselves against claims of harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Title VII protects employees against discrimination in the workplace on the basis of their race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy) and religion. Claims brought under Title VII are some of the most frequently investigated and litigated employment-related claims. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is particularly aggressive in its investigations of small and medium-size businesses for charges of harassment under Title VII. In the past year, several of our clients have found themselves the targets of investigations for discrimination by the EEOC.
In the employment setting, harassment of an employee is unlawful when either 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or 2) the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment such that a reasonable person would consider it intimidating, abusive or hostile. If the alleged harasser is a supervisor, the employer will be held strictly and vicariously liable for the harassment of the employee unless the employer can prove that it both tried to correct the harassment and prevent it from occurring in the first place and that the employee failed to report the harassment to management. However, if the harasser is a coworker or subordinate of the harassed employee, the employer will only be liable for the harassment if the employer was negligent in investigating and remedying the harassment. As a result, our experienced employment attorneys always advise our clients to create strong employment policies that provide employees with multiple avenues for reporting harassing behavior to any member of management.
In the past, Federal courts have been split on the definition of “supervisor” under Title VII. The Fourth Circuit has held that the alleged harasser need only have the authority to direct and oversee the victim’s daily work in order to be considered a supervisor– under the Fourth Circuit’s view, the alleged harasser does not have to have the authority to take tangible employment actions (e.g., fire, demote, transfer, discipline) the employee. However, the United States Supreme Court held this week that the definition of a supervisor under Title VII is limited to those who can effect 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.” Vance v. Ball State University.
As a result of this Supreme Court ruling, most of our clients can be assured that their businesses will only be held vicariously liable for a supervisor’s harassment of an employee if the harasser is a supervisor that has the authority to make tangible employment decisions over the victim. General daily supervision of an employee without the right to make these decisions is no longer enough to give rise to vicarious liability. A “supervisor” with respect to Title VII must be an individual that has the right to fire, demote, transfer or otherwise alter an employee’s position with the company.
Should the employer fail to create a strong anti-harassment policy in the first place, the employer will always be vicariously liable for the harassing behavior of its supervisors or employees. The Supreme Court has previously held that an employer with a strong and effective anti-harassment policy can therefore defend themselves from claims that the employer did not attempt to prevent harassment in the workplace. We encourage all of our clients to contact us to discuss ways to protect themselves against all types of Title VII claims and to establish workplace policies that create a safe, productive environment for all employees.