Vance v. Ball State Univ.
570 U.S. ___ (2013)

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Justia Opinion Summary
Under Title VII (42 U.S.C. 2000e–2(a)(1)), an employer’s liability for workplace harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. If the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, and the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, the employer is strictly liable. If there was no tangible employment action, the employer may escape liability by establishing that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct harassing behavior and that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, BSU, alleging that a fellow employee, Davis, created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The district court entered summary judgment, holding that BSU was not vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged actions because Davis, who could not take tangible employment actions against Vance, was not a supervisor. The Seventh Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. An employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. A definition that draws a sharp line between co-workers and supervisors, with the authority to take tangible employment actions as the defining characteristic of a supervisor, can be readily applied. Supervisor status will often be discerned before or soon after litigation commences and is likely to be resolved as a matter of law before trial. This definition will not leave employees unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks and accounts for the fact that many modern organizations have abandoned a hierarchical management structure in favor of giving employees overlapping authority with respect to assignments.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

VANCE v. BALL STATE UNIVERSITY et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 11–556. Argued November 26, 2012—Decided June 24, 2013

Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for workplace harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. In cases in which the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, different rules apply. If the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action (i.e., “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,” Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U. S. 742 ), the employer is strictly liable. But if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may escape liability by establishing, as an affirmative defense, that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided. Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U. S. 775 ; Ellerth, supra, at 765.

          Petitioner Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, Ball State University (BSU) alleging that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The District Court granted summary judgment to BSU. It held that BSU was not vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged actions because Davis, who could not take tangible employment actions against Vance, was not a supervisor. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Held: An employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. Pp. 9–30.

     (a) Petitioner errs in relying on the meaning of “supervisor” in general usage and in other legal contexts because the term has varying meanings both in colloquial usage and in the law. In any event, Congress did not use the term “supervisor” in Title VII, and the way to understand the term’s meaning for present purposes is to consider the interpretation that best fits within the highly structured framework adopted in Faragher and Ellerth. Pp. 10–14.

     (b) Petitioner misreads Faragher and Ellerth in claiming that those cases support an expansive definition of “supervisor” because, in her view, at least some of the alleged harassers in those cases, whom the Court treated as supervisors, lacked the authority that the Seventh Circuit’s definition demands. In Ellerth, there was no question that the alleged harasser, who hired and promoted his victim, was a supervisor. And in Faragher, the parties never disputed the characterization of the alleged harassers as supervisors, so the question simply was not before the Court. Pp. 14–18.

     (c) The answer to the question presented in this case is implicit in the characteristics of the framework that the Court adopted in Ellerth and Faragher, which draws a sharp line between co-workers and supervisors and implies that the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor. Ellerth, supra, at 762.

     The interpretation of the concept of a supervisor adopted today is one that can be readily applied. An alleged harasser’s supervisor status will often be capable of being discerned before (or soon after) litigation commences and is likely to be resolved as a matter of law before trial. By contrast, the vagueness of the EEOC’s standard would impede the resolution of the issue before trial, possibly requiring the jury to be instructed on two very different paths of analysis, depending on whether it finds the alleged harasser to be a supervisor or merely a co-worker.

     This approach will not leave employees unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks. In such cases, a victim can prevail simply by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur, and the jury should be instructed that the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor in determining negligence. Pp. 18–25.

     (d) The definition adopted today accounts for the fact that many modern organizations have abandoned a hierarchical management structure in favor of giving employees overlapping authority with respect to work assignments. Petitioner fears that employers will attempt to insulate themselves from liability for workplace harassment by empowering only a handful of individuals to take tangible employment actions, but a broad definition of “supervisor” is not necessary to guard against that concern. Pp. 25–26.

646 F. 3d 461, affirmed.

     Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined.

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