Part 2 of 2: Supreme Court Rules That "Supervisors" Under Title VII Must Have Power to Take Tangible Employment Actions

On Monday, we blogged about the first of two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar.  Today, we’ll discuss the second decision, Vance v. Ball State University, which addressed who is a “supervisor” for vicarious liability purposes under Title VII.  The decision provides clarity in a previously muddled area of law, and has important implications for employer liability for workplace harassment under Title VII.

As you probably know, Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and similarly prohibits harassment resulting in a hostile work environment based on these characteristics.  The plaintiff in Vance was a catering assistant who filed a lawsuit claiming that she had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment at the hands of a catering specialist in her department.  Although the parties disagreed about whether the specialist was a supervisor, they did agree that she lacked authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the plaintiff.  The district (trial) court found that without this authority, the specialist was not a supervisor for whose actions the employer could be vicariously liable under Title VII.

But wait, you might be asking—why would supervisory status matter in the first place?  In short, it matters a lot.  An employer’s liability for unlawful harassment that creates a hostile work environment often depends on whether the harassing employee is a supervisor.  If the harassing employee is not a supervisor, the employer is liable for his or her conduct only if the employer was negligent about the offensive behavior.  In other words, if an employee is harassed by a co-worker or a non-supervisor, the employer is only responsible for the resulting hostile work environment if the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to address it. 

An employer’s liability for a supervisor’s actions, on the other hand, is much broader.  There, the employer is automatically vicariously liable if: (1) the supervisor takes a “tangible employment action,” which includes actions such as hiring, firing, demoting, or significantly changing benefits; or (2) the supervisor does not take a tangible employment action, but the employer is unable to establish an affirmative defense to liability.  Employers can establish an affirmative defense by showing that (1) they exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior; and (2) the alleged harassment victim failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities that were provided.  (This defense is commonly known as the Faragher/Ellerth defense, named after two Supreme Court decisions from the late 1990s.) 

 

Turning back to Vance, the Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the district court and found that a supervisor under Title VII must have the power to take “tangible employment actions” against the alleged victim. If the alleged harasser does not have such authority, the employer is not vicariously liable, and the victim must show that the employer was negligent in handling the situation, i.e., that it knew about the harassment and did nothing to stop it.

 

Practically speaking, what does this mean for employers? As an initial matter, it is unclear how the reasoning in Vance will be applied to other anti-discrimination statutes, such as ORS chapter 659A (Oregon’s Title VII equivalent). Given that chapter 659A is similar to Title VII, however, and that Oregon courts often look to Title VII cases for guidance, Vance will serve at the least as persuasive authority in cases where only state law claims are asserted. 

 

If Vance applies, an employer has a good chance of escaping liability if the alleged harasser cannot hire, fire, discipline, demote, or take similar action against the victim—so long as the employer can show that it had no knowledge of the harassment or that it reasonably responded to any incidents it was aware of.  Vance also provides a clear standard as to who is a supervisor, making it more likely that questions concerning the alleged harasser’s status (and the employer’s vicarious liability) will be resolved as a matter of law before the case gets to trial.  What the case does not mean is that an employer can never be liable for the actions of its lower-level employees (or that victims are without recourse unless their harasser is a supervisor).  If the employer is negligent, a harassment victim will still have a cause of action against the employer. 

With Vance in mind, employers should review job descriptions to ensure that they accurately reflect employees’ responsibilities, distinguishing those who have the power to hire, fire, etc. from those who merely control the day-to-day schedules or assignments of others.  Employers are further advised, as always, to provide comprehensive harassment and discrimination training to employees (including supervisors), and to respond promptly if there is any indication that unlawful conduct is occurring in the workplace.

11th Circuit Disagrees With NLRB And Finds Nurses Are "Supervisors" In Lakeland Health Care Decision

Several weeks ago the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit weighed in on the ongoing debate in labor law over the definition of who is a “supervisor,” and therefore not eligible to join a union, under the federal National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The opinion, Lakeland Health Care Associates , is but the latest installment in an area of labor law that has been evolving over at least the past decade.  While this line of cases, including Lakeland Health Care, are specific to the “supervisor” status of nurses working in the residential care industry, the relevant legal tests are the same for all industries. Employers who may wish to oppose unionization efforts among employees it believes are supervisors will therefore want to continue to pay close attention to these cases to see what could be done to maximize the chance that the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) would also find those employees are supervisors. 

LPNs Supervise Other Employees, But Are They “Supervisors” Under The NLRA?

As with many things in labor law, determining who is a “supervisor” is rarely straightforward: simply giving someone the title of “supervisor” is never enough. In many cases employees may have only partial supervisory authority—the issue in cases like Lakeland Health Care is whether the employees had enough supervisory authority to be “supervisors” under the NLRA.

Lakeland Health Care operates residential care facilities (until recently known commonly as “nursing homes”). Consistent with industry-wide practice, Lakeland Health Care staffs its facility primarily with Certified Nursing Assistants (“CNAs”), who perform most of the day-to-day work providing physical care to residents—such as feeding, dressing, bathing, turning, etc.—and charge nurses, usually Licensed Practical Nurses (“LPNs”) or sometimes Registered Nurses (“RNs”), who provide basic medical care to residents such as administering medication, inserting or monitoring intravenous lines, and performing blood draws. Also consistent with industry practice, the RNs and LPNs have general day-to-day supervision over the CNAs with whom they work each shift, but do not have independent hire/fire authority.

Section 2(11) of the NLRA and related case law has a very detailed and complex definition of who is a “supervisor.” To summarize, a “supervisor” is any employee who has the authority to hire, fire, discipline, or assign work to other employees, or to effectively recommend any of those actions, or who “responsibly direct[s]” other employees in their day-to-day work. The supervisor must also use “independent judgment” in performing those supervisory functions and not merely report employee conduct to higher level managers to take action.  Those who meet the "supervisors" tests are not "employees" eligible to organize into unions under the NLRA.

After reviewing the testimony of company witnesses, and employee handbooks and written job descriptions, the 11th Circuit concluded, in contrast to the NLRB, that the Lakeland Health Care LPNs were supervisors under that NLRA definition. Specifically, the Court found that even though LPNs could not hire or fire CNAs, they could independently issue them written and verbal coaching (i.e., discipline) and assign work. The Court also found that LPNs “responsibly directed” CNAs in their day-to-day work in that the LPN ultimately could be held responsible, and disciplined, if the CNAs failed to provide adequate care to residents. The Court found that the LPNs exercised sufficient “independent judgment” in performing all of these functions with respect to CNAs.

A Brief Recent History Of “Supervisor” Status

The supervisory status of charge nurses in the residential care industry has been the subject of much labor litigation over the past 10 years (perhaps because that industry has specifically been targeted for organization drives by many major national and local unions). While the reasoning in Lakeland Health Care summarized above may sound straight-forward, other cases with nearly identical facts have reached very differently results. These differing outcomes make it difficult for employers to know when employees are supervisors, and appear to be largely influenced by two factors.

First, the NLRB’s own interpretation of the law can change dramatically over time depending on whether a pro-union Democrat or pro-business Republican is President. For example, in 2006 the Bush-era Board issued employer-friendly decisions that broadly applied the “supervisor” exception in its Oakwood Health Care “trilogy” (also involving the status of charge nurses in residential care facilities). In so doing, Oakwood Health Care departed from Clinton-era NLRB decisions that had made it much more difficult to show that employees like LPNs are “supervisors.” In recent years, the Obama Board has distinguished Oakwood Health Care to turn back the clock to the broader Clinton-era interpretations of “supervisor.” Perhaps most difficult, the NLRB rarely outright reverses earlier opinions, but instead tries to find subtle factual nuances to harmonize its decisions, even though the different outcomes sometimes seem to be based on very similar factual patterns. 

Second, there is also tension between the (generally pro-union) NLRB and the federal circuit courts, which have jurisdiction to reverse those decisions and may tend to be more pro-employer. For example, the 11th Circuit in Lakeland Health Care specifically held that the employer must only show that the LPNs have the authority to perform the supervisory functions (through written job descriptions, handbooks, and the testimony of managers), not that they demonstrate a practice of actually having used that authority in specific cases. That holding may be a departure from recent cases where the Board found under virtually identical facts that charge nurses were not supervisors, because, even though written policies and job descriptions showed they had supervisory authority, they did not actually discipline CNAs, or did not do so often enough. 

Back To The Future:  More Conflicting Decisions To Come?

It will be interesting to see how the Obama Board will respond to the 11th Circuit’s opinion in Lakeland Health Care.  As we have blogged about repeatedly, the current Obama Board has been very active, tends to be pro-union, and is not afraid of taking positions potentially at odds with federal courts, even the U.S. Supreme Court.  And the NLRB could only be emboldened now that President Obama has won re-election. It is therefore difficult to see how this tug-of-war will play out.  Maybe the only thing that is certain is that more fireworks are likely over the next few months and years in this area.

In the meantime, Lakeland Health Care may offer some help to employers who wish to oppose unionization efforts involving potentially supervisory employees.  While circuit court opinions are not technically binding on the NLRB or its regional offices, they can be persuasive authority.  Also, while this line of cases is particularly relevant for employers like Lakeland in residential care, the “supervisor” tests are the same everywhere.  Employers in all industries may wish to pay particular attention to the weight the 11th Circuit gave to the handbooks and written job descriptions, which helped show that the LPNs in that case had the necessary supervisory authority, and revise their own written job descriptions if needed. If you find yourself in an NLRB hearing involving the supervisory status of employees, the quality of your written job descriptions and handbooks could help make the difference in proving your case.

NLRB's New "Vote Now, Litigate Later" Union Election Rules To Become Effective April 2012

 The NLRB gave organized labor a meaningful gift just before the holidays by issuing a final rule adopting new election case procedures that will likely result in more and faster union elections, and probably also result in more employers having unionized workforces.  The new rule becomes effective on April 30, 2012.

The New Year:  Out With The Old Rules...

During union campaigns, the union and the employer may disagree (vigorously) about the proper size ("scope") of the proposed bargaining unit.  Such disputes can include whether certain employees are "supervisory" employees and thus ineligible to vote, or whether different classifications of employees share enough of a "community of interest" to be included in the same bargaining unit, and covered by the same contract.  How those disputes are resolved often determine the outcome of the election.  Under the existing (er, now old) election rules, employers had the opportunity to litigate these types of bargaining unit scope issues before the election. 

...In With The New

The NLRB's new rule essentially eliminates the employer's opportunity to litigate, prior to the election, any disputes over the scope of the bargaining unit proposed by the union.  Under the rule, such issues will ordinarily be addressed only after the election takes place.  Employers should be aware of how this "vote now, litigate later" rule could impact union elections. 

Shorter Election Campaigns: Under the old rules, litigating bargaining unit scope issues usually delayed the election, giving employers additional time to discuss the pros and cons of unions with its workers before the vote.  That additional campaign period is now lost, depriving employers of valuable time to counter an organizing campaign that may have started months before the union went to the NLRB seeking an election. 

Greater Difficulty in Challenging The Union's Proposed Unit: Although employers may technically be able to litigate unit scope and voter eligibility issues after the NLRB conducts the election, in those cases where the vote results in a "yes" vote for the union (which under the old rules happened more than 60% of the time), employers will be in the difficult position of having to contest threshold legal issues after the employees have already "won" the right to representation.  This procedure tilts the playing field in favor of unions. 

Considered in the context of the NLRB's August 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare, this rule means that the petitioning union will get a quick election in the unit of employees it has chosen to organize.  Specialty Healthcare enables unions to organize small or "micro" units of employees (such as single classifications of employees or individual departments).  The Board held that for an employer to add excluded employees to the union's proposed unit, it must demonstrate that the excluded employees share an "overwhelming community of interest" with the employees the union seeks to represent.  In a dissenting opinion, NLRB Member Brian Hayes noted that this test makes it “virtually impossible” for the employer to prove the union's proposed unit is not proper.  To make matters worse, now the Employer will ordinarily have to make that argument after the union has already "won." 

Why Now?  Election Year Politics, That's Why.

That the NLRB issued these new rules now probably had less to do with the holiday spirit than with an election of a different sort--the 2012 U.S. Presidential election and the related gridlock in the U.S. Congress.  Up until last week, the Board had three members (out of a possible five) which, after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in New Process Steel, is the minimum required for the NLRB to decide cases and issue regulations.  Last week was when President Obama's controversial recess appointment of Member Craig Becker ended.  The NLRB may have wanted to enact the new rules before it was reduced to two members again, as that may be the last opportunity in an election year for the Obama Administration to do something substantial for organized labor, an important constituency.  While nominations for the three NLRB Member vacancies are pending, the gridlocked Senate is not expected to act on those nominations any time soon.  While the President could make another recess appointment to ensure a functioning, three-member NLRB, that risks (further) alienating Senate Republicans, all 47 of whom recently signed a letter urging the President not to fill NLRB vacancies using recess appointments.  The next few weeks, before Congress reconvenes on January 23 from its holiday recess, could be very interesting for NLRB-watchers.  Stay tuned...

Update!

 

...well you didn't have to stay tuned for long!  President Obama has announced three recess appointments to the NLRB.  The appointees include two Democrats (Richard Griffin and Sharon Block) and one Republican (Terence Flynn), giving Democrats a 3-2 Board majority.  The President’s decision to bypass the Senate confirmation process quickly drew the ire of Senate Republicans, but the President chose that fight over the alternative of allowing the NLRB to go through a prolonged period in which it was unable to issue decisions or adopt regulations.  As a result of these appointments, we can expect more pro-labor decisions in 2012.

 

Supreme Court Upholds "Cat's Paw" Theory In Employment Discrimination Cases

Today the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, upholding the "cat's paw" theory of employer liability, under which employers are liable for discrimination where lower-level supervisors with discriminatory motives influence, but do not make, adverse employment decisions made by higher-level managers.  The near unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, is likely to greatly increase employer accountability for the actions and recommendations of lower-level supervisors.

Vincent Staub worked for Procter Hospital as an angiography technician; he was also a member of the Army Reserves.  His immediate supervisors resented his absences, which required coworkers to “bend over backwards” to pick up the slack. In January 2004 Staub was placed on Corrective Action for failing to be at his desk as required, and in April 2004 his supervisor informed HR that Staub was again away from his desk without notifying a supervisor as required.  Staub disputed the original Corrective Action, and also said he left a voice mail for his supervisor before leaving his desk in April.  The HR Manager largely relied on the supervisor’s accusation, reviewed Staub’s personnel file, consulted with another HR employee, and decided to terminate Staub’s employment. 

Staub sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”), which prohibits discrimination based on military service.  Under the so-called “cat’s paw” theory, Staub claimed that Procter Hospital was liable for discrimination, because the neutral decision-maker (the HR Manager) relied on information provided by lower-level supervisors who had discriminatory motives and were out to get him fired.  After winning in a jury trial, the district court granted Proctor Hospital’s motion to dismiss.  In affirming, the 7th Circuit had held that the employer should not be liable under the cat’s paw theory, because the lower-level supervisors’ input was not the “singular influence” on the decision, and because the HR Manager conducted “her own investigation into the facts relevant to the decision” and therefore was not “wholly dependent” on the discriminatory input.

Staub begins with an analysis of the text of USERRA, which expressly defines causation to include situations where discriminatory animus is "a motivating factor" in an adverse employment decision.  Drawing also on tort and agency principles, Justice Scalia concluded that the cat’s paw theory applies in cases where 1) a supervisor acts with discriminatory motive, 2) the discriminatory supervisor intends to cause the adverse action, and 3) the discriminatory act is a “proximate cause” of the adverse action.  Scalia rejected the argument that the decision-maker’s independent investigation should purge the decision of discriminatory motive, noting that the hostile supervisors’ recommendations remained a motivating factor in the decision.  He also noted, in contrast to the 7th Circuit, that the HR Manager largely relied on the supervisors’ account of the facts underlying the termination, and did not independently determine whether the supervisors’ recommendations were justified. 

 

What Employers Can Do:  Don’t Be A Cat’s Paw

While Staub opens the door wider to discrimination cases under the cat’s paw theory, the case offers some guidance on what employers can do to minimize exposure from these claims.  Most obviously, ultimate decision makers cannot simply rely on recommendations from subordinates, but should conduct a thorough and independent investigation into the facts underlying the employment action.  The subtext of Staub suggests the HR Manager’s investigation was far from adequate—she merely reviewed the personnel file and consulted another HR employee, but largely relied on the (hostile) supervisor’s accusation that Staub had, in fact, violated a workplace rule.  The better the independent investigation, especially into the underlying facts, the more likely it is to break the “proximate cause” nexus between coworkers’ discriminatory motive and the employer’s ultimate decision. 

In addition, and perhaps just as obvious, employers should do everything possible to detect and immediately end discriminatory animus brewing among lower level employees. The plaintiff inStaub easily satisfied the other two prongs of the Court’s test—that the supervisor acted with a discriminatory motive and intended to cause Staub’s firing—because the trial record was full of choice remarks by coworkers disparaging his military duty and complaining about his absences. His supervisors described his Reserve military duty as a “bunch of smoking and joking and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” and scheduled him additional shifts “to pay back the department for everyone else having to bend over backwards to cover his schedule for the Reserves.”

The Reach of the Cat’s Paw

Staub makes clear that its reasoning applies to more than just USERRA cases.  The opinion expressly noted that Title VII also uses the “a motivating factor” causation standard.  What is less clear is whether it applies to just discriminatory supervisors, or also to non-supervisory coworkers. For the moment, however, the Supreme Court has given a green light to cat’s paw cases, and employers should assume it could apply broadly and to any discrimination claim.

 

When Is It Okay to Cuss Out Your Boss?

Most of us assume that if an employee swears at a manager or, he or she can be disciplined or even fired.  That assumption may be wrong, depending on the context in which the swearing occurs.  A federal judge recently held that the Federal Aviation Administration violated federal labor law when it removed a local union president from its premises after he used profanity toward his supervisor in the course of union activity.  Click here to read the opinion in  FAA and National Air Traffic Controllers Association

In FAA, an employee (who was also the union president) got into a verbal altercation with his supervisor over what the employee felt were insufficient staffing levels under their union contract.  In the course of that altercation, the employee told his boss:  “F*** you, I don't give a f***!”  (Imagine a certain four-letter word that rhymes with "duck.")  In response, the supervisor had the employee escorted off of the employer's premises.  A federal judge held that the employer's response violated the employee's rights under federal labor law.  The judge ruled that because the swearing occurred in the course of union activity,  it was protected speech:  “the use of profanity, standing alone, does not remove conduct or speech from the protection of [federal labor law]."   The Judge also noted that the outburst was brief, made in a normal tone of voice, and not overheard by other employees.

FAA teaches us an important lesson:  even relatively robust swearing by an employee during the course of otherwise protected activity may be protected.  The same logic behind the FAA decision could possibly apply to other types of protected employee speech:  union activity, harassment complaints, discrimination complaints, safety reports, etc. 

So when does profanity, even in the scope of protected activity, lose its protection?  There are no "bright line" rules, but courts look to several factors: 

  • the volume, severity and duration of the outburst
  • whether it is accompanies by threats or threatening gestures
  • whether there is a workplace culture that condones or encourages profanity
  • whether it is overheard by other employees
  • whether the profanity is likely to disrupt workplace operations
  • whether it rises to the level of verbal harassment that may violate the employer's policies
  • whether it was a spontaneous outburst made out of frustration, instead of a premeditated attempt to humiliate the supervisor. 

In any event, employers should proceed with a great deal of caution before disciplining an employee who uses profanity in the course of a protected activity.  If the swearing was not in the course of a protected activity, disciplining the employee for insubordination or unprofessional behavior is relatively risk-free. 

Starbucks Obtains Reversal of $105 Million "Tip Sharing" Case

Just over a year ago, we reported about a $105 million California verdict in favor of Starbucks baristas who were required to pool their tips with supervisors.  As you might expect, Starbucks appealed that decision.  Yesterday, a California Court reversed the decision.  Click here to read the decision in Chau v. Starbucks.

The 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego ruled Tuesday that supervisors "essentially perform the same job as baristas," so they should get their fair share of the collective tips.  (We wonder what that says about the supervisors' exempt status?)  Attorneys for the baristas have indicated they will appeal to the California Supreme Court, and the Stoel Rives World of Employment will be watching, its $3.50 latte in hand.