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Vance v. Ball State University

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: June 24, 2013
Case #: 11-556
Alito J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas JJ., joined. Thomas J., filed a concurring opinion. Ginsberg J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined.
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/11-556_11o2.pdf

Employment Law: Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a “supervisor” is a person that has the power to take “tangible employment action” against the harassment victim.

Twelve years after starting work in Respondent’s Banquet and Catering Department, Petitioner filed two actions with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming discrimination by her direct supervisor and co-workers.

The District Court granted summary judgment for Respondent. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment, finding that the claims against the supervisor failed to establish that his actions were racially motivated in character or purpose. Additionally, the Seventh Circuit found that the co-workers did not fall under the classification of supervisor, and therefore Respondent was not vicariously liable under Title VII. Further, Respondent met its obligations under Title VII by promptly investigating all of Petitioner’s claims and pursuing disciplinary action when appropriate.

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the “supervisor” liability rule (1) applies to harassment by individuals the employer has vested with authority to direct and oversee alleged victims work, or whether (2) the rule is limited to individuals who are empowered to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” the alleged victim.  

The Supreme Court affirmed and held that for purposes of Title VII rule, to be a “supervisor,” a person must have the power to take “tangible employment action” against the victim. That is, the supervisor must be able 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 Petitioner failed to show that the person who discriminated against her was a supervisor under the Court’s definition.