The Manufacturing Law Blog provides timely commentary on issues of importance to manufacturers and distributors.  Contributors from the law firm of Robinson & Cole LLP are corporate compliance and litigation attorney, Jeff White; environmental, health and safety attorney, Pam Elkow;  and labor and employment attorney, Nicole Bernabo.

Our U.S. Supreme Court roundup posts will discuss select employment cases decided this term that may have a significant impact on manufacturers.  On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court decided the case of Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556 (U.S. June 24, 2013), and clarified the definition of “supervisor” for purposes of holding employers liable for harassment and/or discrimination pursuant to Title VII.  In its decision, the Court stated that it wanted to provide employers with a clear standard, and, for that reason, held that a supervisor is limited to those individuals who can make 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.”[1] 

In a nutshell, the Vance opinion means that employees alleging harassment by another employee who does not have the power to hire, fire, promote, transfer or discipline them, bear the burden of proving the employer’s negligence in order for the employer to be liable for the harassment.  Even if other employees have some supervisory authority and are labeled supervisors by the employer, they are considered “merely” co-employees.  An employer is liable for harassment by coworkers only if the employer is negligent in allowing the harassment to happen.  This type of negligence inquiry should take into account the degree of authority and control the harasser had, and the greater the amount, the more likely the employer may be found negligent, as long as it also had constructive notice of that harassment.  In other words, the alleged victim must prove that the employer knew or should have known of the conduct and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.  Here, the lower courts found that the employee at issue, Davis, was not a supervisor because he had no power to take tangible employment actions against Vance and, therefore, was not her supervisor.  Because Ball State had promptly investigated and remedied Vance’s complaints, the case was dismissed.

For manufacturing employers, this decision is a good reminder that titles and job descriptions do not hold as much weight as the practical realities of the workplace.  Employers may wish to review the chain of command within various facilities to ensure supervisory status is clearly defined and provide training to those who have the tangible power to make significant employment decisions, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities and/or a significant change in benefits.  It is important to note that any changes to such job descriptions may have an impact on other labor and employment laws, such as eligibility to vote in a union election pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act or possible exemption status under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Further, state and local laws may define supervisory status more broadly, such as the New York City Human Rights Law and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Finally, as mentioned, the Vance case was dismissed because the court found that Ball State had promptly and thoroughly investigated the discrimination complaint.   This decision therefore reinforces the importance of adopting, disseminating, educating all employees on a company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy.  Should a discrimination or harassment complaint arise, acting in accordance with such policy will be helpful in demonstrating that an employer took reasonable measures to prevent the alleged harassment and discrimination.