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Employer liability for discrimination committed by supervisors

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits many types of discrimination in the workplace; for instance, it forbids racial discrimination. But, not only does Title VII protect employees from the discrimination of their employers, the United States Supreme Court has also said it protects employees from discrimination perpetrated by employers’ “agents” – which includes supervisors according to the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that federal courts now know employers can be held vicariously liable for the discriminatory acts of supervisors, many Circuit Courts have differing views as to what actually constitutes a “supervisor.” However, an employment case recently heard by the Supreme Court may clear up some of this confusion.

Defining who is a supervisor

Currently, three Circuit Courts follow the proposition that a supervisor is a person who has the formal authority to make tangible employment decisions, such as those pertaining to the hiring, firing, promoting or disciplining of employees. The Eighth Circuit – of which Missouri is a part – is one of the circuits that subscribes to this definition.

However, three other circuits have applied a more liberal definition to what actually constitutes a supervisor. In these circuits, a supervisor can merely be someone who has the authority to control an employee’s day to day tasks.

In the case recently argued before the Supreme Court, a woman claims she was the victim of racial bias and a hostile work environment while working for the dining and catering department at a university. Specifically, the victim – who was the only African American in her department – alleges that coworkers harassed her using racial epithets and also threatened her at times.

Moreover, the victim claims that one coworker in particular – a coworker whom the woman regarded as her supervisor – would use racial epithets that referenced the Ku Klux Klan and even slapped the victim in the face once.

Unfortunately for the victim, the case was heard a circuit that follows the more restrictive supervisor definition. Consequently, the Circuit Court determined that the coworker who allegedly slapped and harassed the victim was not her supervisor since the coworker did not have the authority to take an explicit job action. In addition, even if this particular coworker did direct the victim’s day to day tasks, this was insufficient to consider the coworker a supervisor, according to the Circuit Court decision. Following this determination, this victim appealed to the Supreme Court.

Regrettably, this is just the most recent illustration of the various Circuit Courts’ inability to reach an agreement regarding what constitutes a supervisor under Title VII. Hopefully the Supreme Court will rectify this issue and create a bright-line rule that will not only bring much needed clarification, but also adequately protect employees in the process.

However as this case demonstrates, employment discrimination cases can be quite complex. Accordingly, if you believe you have suffered unlawful discrimination at the hands of your employer it may be advisable to speak with an experienced employment law attorney to learn what your options and rights may be.