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Legal Briefing: Supreme Court Ruling Limits Harassment Claims

Employers must have complaint procedures and an effective process to investigate and resolve harassment allegations.

August 21, 2013

Maetta Vance, a black catering assistant at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, alleged that a white co-employee, Saundra Davis, racially harassed her. She claimed that Davis slapped her, threatened bodily harm and blocked her from exiting a work elevator, as well as made racial jokes in her presence. After Vance complained, Ball State conducted investigations and took disciplinary actions. Vance sued Ball State for racial harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana dismissed the lawsuit in favor of Ball State and held that the employer was not vicariously liable for Davis’ actions because she was not a supervisor, and it promptly remedied her complaints. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. It found no evidence that Davis had the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline employees, and rejected Vance’s argument that Davis was her supervisor.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision. It held that, to be a supervisor for vicarious liability purposes under Title VII, an employee must be authorized by the employer to take tangible employment actions against another worker. A Title VII supervisor must have the authority to make a “significant change” in another worker’s employment status, such as through hiring, firing or failing to promote. The court rejected the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s long-standing broader definition of “supervisor” that includes employees who direct other workers’ day-to-day activities. Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556, U.S. Supreme Court (June 24, 2013).

IMPACT: Under the federal Title VII, an employer can only be held strictly liable for the harassing conduct of employees if the employee is a supervisor. In all cases, employers must have complaint procedures and an effective process to investigate and resolve harassment allegations.

James E. Hall, Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners in the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has offices in Los Angeles and Chicago. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.