Formalism and Employer Liability under Title VII
32 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2013 Last revised: 13 Dec 2014
Date Written: December 3, 2013
Most lawyers, law professors, and judges are familiar with two standard critiques of formalism in legal reasoning. One is the unacknowledged-policymaking critique — that formalist reasoning purports to be above judicial policymaking but instead simply hides the policy decisions offstage. The other is the false-determinacy critique — that formalist reasoning purports to reduce decision costs in the run of cases by sorting cases into defined categories, but that instead of going away the difficult questions of application migrate to the choice of the category in which to place a particular case. Last Term’s decision in Vance v. Ball State University demonstrates that the Supreme Court's complex doctrine on employer liability under Title VII amply deserves each of these critiques. The Court’s formalistic reasoning conceals a series of unacknowledged, undefended, and dubious policy choices. Those choices stand behind the Court’s resolution of the question that triggered substantial debate within the Court — how to define a “supervisor,” whose harassing acts trigger employer liability. They also stand behind the perhaps more important holding, hiding in plain sight, that an employer is liable for harassment by nonsupervisory coworkers only when the employer is itself negligent. To the extent that the Court offered any justification for its decision, that justification was one of crispness and determinacy of application. But, as is often the case with formalist reasoning, the Court’s promises of crispness and determinacy were almost transparently false. In her dissenting opinion in Vance, Justice Ginsburg urged Congress to overturn the Court’s narrow interpretation of who is a “supervisor.” Such an action would solve some of the problems with the Court’s opinion, but it would not go far enough. Rather, Congress should reconsider the entire employer liability structure the Court constructed in the landmark 1998 Faragher and Ellerth cases.
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