June 24, 2013

Supreme Court Decides Vance v. Ball State University

On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court decided Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556, holding that an employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only if the person is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim of workplace harassment.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual on the basis of race, including by creating a racially hostile work environment. If the hostile environment is created by an individual's co-worker, an employer can be held liable only for its own negligence with respect to the behavior. But if the hostile environment flows from an individual's "supervisor," an employer can be held vicariously liable for the supervisor's actions, making it easier for the individual to prove liability.

Petitioner Maetta Vance is an African-American woman who worked as a catering assistant for Ball State University (BSU). Vance filed complaints with BSU and charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission related to her interactions with a fellow BSU employee, Saundra Davis, who is white. Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. Vance filed this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, claiming that she had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII, and arguing that Davis was her supervisor and that BSU was liable for Davis' creation of a racially hostile work environment.

The District Court entered summary judgment in favor of BSU, finding that BSU could not be held vicariously liable for Davis' alleged racial harassment because Davis was not a supervisor. The Seventh Circuit affirmed because its settled precedent requires a supervisor to have "the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee."

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and affirmed. Rejecting the open-ended approach advocated by the EEOC's Enforcement Guidance, which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant discretion over another's daily work, the Court agreed with the Seventh Circuit and held that the employer must have empowered the employee with the ability to take tangible employment actions against the victim, such as hiring, firing, promoting, or disciplining. The term "supervisor," wrote the Court, has "varying meanings both in colloquial usage and in the law." In the context of the Court's previous decisions in Ellerth and Faragher, however, the term was adopted to describe a class of employees whose misconduct may give rise to vicarious liability, and it described employees who "could bring the official power of the enterprise to bear on subordinates." This meaning is both easy to administer and adapted to its purpose.

Because there was no evidence that BSU empowered Davis to take any tangible employment action against Vance, the Court affirmed the judgment against Vance's claims.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion for the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas joined. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.

Download Opinion of the Court

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