VANCE v. BALL STATE UNIVERSITY

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
11-556
Petitioner 
Maetta Vance
Respondent 
Ball State University
Decided By 
Advocates
(for the petitioner)
(Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, in support of neither party)
(for the respondents)
Term:
Facts of the Case 

Maetta Vance began working for University Dining Services at Ball State University in 1989 as a substitute server. She was the only African-American working in the department. Vance submitted a complaint to the University when a coworker used a racial epithet directed at her and African-American students at the University. The University issued the coworker a written warning, but following a series of incidents that resulted in Vance reporting that she felt unsafe in her workplace, the University investigated but found no basis for action. On October 3, 2006, Vance sued Ball State University in federal district court for lessening her work duties and ability to work overtime, forcing her to work through her breaks, and unjustly disciplining her. After filing the suit, Vance claimed her work environment continued to worsen, but the University’s investigations did not yield enough evidence to discipline anyone.

The University moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion and held that there was not enough evidence to prove a hostile work environment and that the University was not liable for the actions of individual coworkers. Vance appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

Question 

Can a coworker who is vested with the authority to oversee the daily work of another worker be considered a supervisor for the purpose of determining employer liability for harassment?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for Ball State University, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Civil Rights Act of 1964

No. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. delivered the opinion for the 5-4 majority. The Court held that, for the purposes of liability for workplace harassment under Title VII, the definition of a “supervisor” is limited to a person empowered to take tangible employment action against the victim. Because Title VII creates a distinction between an employer’s liability for the actions of a coworker and the actions of a supervisor, it is important to have clear distinction between the two definitions to aid in the application of the Title VII guidelines. Allowing the colloquial usage of “supervisor” that tends to conflate the concept of supervisor and coworker lacks the necessary specificity. The Court held that, to be considered a supervisor for the purposes of workplace employer liability, an individual must have the power to hire, fire, fail to promote, reassign to a task with significantly different duties, or cause a significant change in benefits available to the victim.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the majority’s opinion establishes the “narrowest and most workable rule” for ruling on an employer’s liability for harassment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent in which she argued that the majority’s opinion ignores the conditions of the modern workforce and that a more workable definition of a supervisor would be that offered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): anyone with the authority to direct an employee’s daily activities. She argued that although a supervisor may not have the authority to discharge or demote the victim, a supervisor who can effect change in the victim’s working conditions has similar power over the victim. The EEOC’s definition reflects the agency’s informed experience of the modern workplace and the importance of the specific facts of an employee’s duties and relationship to other workers who can enable harassment. The majority’s opinion, however, adopts an inflexible standard that is not responsive to these concerns. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan joined in the dissent.

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VANCE v. BALL STATE UNIVERSITY. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 25 November 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_556>.
VANCE v. BALL STATE UNIVERSITY, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_556 (last visited November 25, 2014).
"VANCE v. BALL STATE UNIVERSITY," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_556.