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SCOTUS rules in favor of Ball State in hostile work environment suit

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In a 5-4 decision Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States has upheld the decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that a woman failed to prove she was subject to a hostile work environment at Ball State University.

The Supreme Court took the case, Maetta Vance v. Ball State University, et al., 11-556, last June and heard arguments in November. Maetta Vance, an African-American, worked in the school’s dining services department and alleged that co-worker Saundra Davis created a hostile work environment. She filed her lawsuit against Ball State claiming a violation of Title VII.

The District Court granted summary judgment to Ball State, which the 7th Circuit upheld. The federal court held the school wasn’t vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged actions because Davis, who couldn’t take tangible employment actions against Vance, wasn’t a supervisor.

“We hold that 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, i.e., to effect a ‘significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits,’” the majority decided in a decision delivered by Associate Justice Samuel Alito.

“We reject the nebulous definition of a ‘supervisor’ advocated in the (Equal Opportunity Employment Commission) Guidance and substantially adopted by several courts of appeals. Petitioner’s reliance on colloquial uses of the term ‘supervisor’ is misplaced, and her contention that our cases require the EEOC’s abstract definition is simply wrong.”

This case addressed an issue left open by Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 I.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), as to who qualifies as a “supervisor” in a case in which an employee asserts a Title VII claim for workplace harassment.

After those cases were decided, the EEOC in 1999 determined a supervisor is an individual authorized to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions, including hiring and firing of an employee, or an individual authorized to direct the employee’s daily work activities.

Because there is no evidence that Ball State empowered Davis to take any tangible employment actions against Vance, the majority affirmed the 7th Circuit.

Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented over the majority’s decision to strike from the EEOC’s guidance as to who qualifies as a supervisor employees who control the day-to-day schedules and assignments of others, limiting it to only those who are empowered to take tangible employee actions.

Ginsburg, writing the dissent, would continue to follow the EEOC’s 1999 guidance and hold the authority to direct an employee’s daily activities establishes supervisory status under Title VII.  

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with the majority, noting he continues to believe Ellerth and Faragher were wrongly decided, and that Monday’s decision provides the narrowest and most workable rule for when an employer may be held vicariously liable for an employee’s harassment.
 

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