US Supreme Court Narrows Definition of “Supervisor” for Discrimination Claims

In the recent decision Vance v. Ball State, the United States Supreme Court has made it more difficult for workers to sue their employers for workplace discrimination. The Court’s 5-4 decision narrowed the definition of the term “supervisor” for purposes of discrimination law.

For the last fifteen years or so, employers have been liable for the conduct of their supervisory employees when the supervisors engage in specific, tangible acts of discrimination. During this time, there has been a lot of litigation over the proper definition of the term “supervisor.” Some courts have employed a broader definition, some a narrower one.

The EEOC — the federal agency charged with enforcing the anti-discrimination laws — has published guidance which adopts a broader definition. According to the agency, supervisors are employees who exercise “significant direction over another’s daily work.”

This definition is now out the window. According to the Vance case, the law of the land is now that “supervisors” are only those management-level employees who “are empowered” to take “tangible employment actions” against lower-level employees, “such as” having the authority to hire and fire.

The conservative majority of the Supreme Court handed a victory to employers in this case. It will now be much harder for victims of discrimination in the workplace to hold their employers accountable for actions of supervisory employees. The purpose of these anti-discrimination laws, i.e., to end discrimination in employment, has been undermined.