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7th Circuit affirms dismissal of hostile work environment claim

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that a woman failed to prove that she was subject to a hostile work environment at Ball State University.

In Maetta Vance v. Ball State University, et al., No. 08-3568, Maetta Vance claimed that her co-workers’ racially charged statements along with unfavorable treatment by her superiors created a hostile work environment.

Vance’s complaint stems from incidents that began in 2001, when Saundra Davis, her co-worker in the University Dining Services catering department, allegedly slapped Vance in the back of the head without provocation. Vance orally complained to her supervisors, but because Davis soon transferred to another department, she did not pursue the matter.

Around the same time, Bill Kimes became Vance’s supervisor. She said Kimes refused to shake her hand when they first met, used a gruff tone of voice with her, and made her feel unwelcome. The Circuit Court held that while evidence exists to support that Kimes was generally difficult to work with, there is no cause to believe he treated her differently than others because of her race, and Vance admitted in her deposition that she had never heard him say anything about her race.

In 2005, Davis returned to Vance’s department, and on September 23, 2005, the two had an altercation in the elevator. A few days later, Vance heard from a fellow employee that another co-worker, Connie McVicker, used a racial epithet to refer to Vance and African-American students on campus.

On September 26, 2005, Vance complained orally to her supervisor about McVicker’s statements, and on October 17, 2005, she called University Compliance to request a complaint form. While requesting the document, Vance again complained about McVicker’s racially offensive comments and, for the first time, informed Ball State that Davis had slapped her four years earlier. In early November, Vance submitted a written complaint detailing McVicker’s comments and the elevator incident with Davis.

Ball State investigated the racial epithet and recommended that Kimes give McVicker a written warning due to the seriousness of the allegation. Typically, the university issues a verbal warning for a first offense and a written warning for a second offense. Kimes issued a written warning to McVicker, but was unable to discipline her when Vance alleged McVicker had subsequently called her another racial epithet because there were no witnesses to support Vance’s claim.

Over the course of several years, Vance lodged multiple complaints against her co-workers, stating that they made faces at her, stared at her, and slammed pots and pans when she was nearby. But the Circuit Court held that a hostile work environment claim requires a consideration of all the circumstances because, in the end, it is the employer’s liability that is at issue, not the liability of particular employees. In Vance’s case, the court held she did not prove Ball State was negligent because the university did investigate her claims.
 

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