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Vance v. Ball State: SCOTUS Affirms, Limits Employer Liability

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on June 28, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Maetta Vance, the only African-American working in her department, sued her employer Ball State University, under Title VII, alleging a racially hostile work environment because of the actions of her co-worker Saundra Davis.

The Supreme Court has held that under Title VII an employer is vicariously liable for the harassing actions of a supervisor toward a claimant in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth. The fate of Vance's claim all depended on whether Saundra Davis was her "supervisor". So, what exactly is a supervisor under the law? SCOTUS has drawn a line in the sand ...

Vance began her employment at Ball State University in 1989 as a substitute server and made her way up the ranks until 2007 when she became a full-time employee. While she worked at Ball State, Saundra Davis, a white woman, allegedly created a racially hostile work environment by giving ...

her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her...[;] that Davis "blocked" her on an elevator and "stood there with her cart smiling"; and that Davis often gave her "weird" looks.

Vance filed complaints with Ball State University and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2005 and 2006, to no avail. Ball State unsuccessfully tried to address the problems, and as a result, Vance sued Ball State claiming a racially hostile work environment, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in federal court in the Southern District of Indiana. Vance reasoned, since Davis was her supervisor, Ball State was liable for Davis' actions. The District Court did not agree.

The District Court approved Ball State's motion for summary judgment explaining that because Davis was not Vance's supervisor, BSU could not be vicariously liable for Davis' actions. The court defined supervisor under the Seventh Circuit's prevailing definition in Hall v. Bodine Elect. Co. as one who can "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline."

The Seventh Circuit affirmed, furthering the wedge between circuits. While the First, Seventh and Eight Circuits defined supervisor narrowly, the Second, Fourth and Ninth Circuits gave the term supervisor a looser meaning to include someone who has the authority to direct and oversee the claimant's work, but did not necessarily have the power to hire or fire.

On Monday, SCOTUS affirmed the Seventh Circuit's narrow reading of the term "supervisor." The Court held "than an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim."

Though this narrow reading of the term supervisor now provides clarity among the circuit courts, it will make it more difficult for victims bringing claims against their employers under Title VII.

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