___ U.S. ___ (2013), 11-556, Vance v. Ball State University

Docket Nº:11-556
Citation:___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 2434
Opinion Judge:Alito, Justice.
Party Name:MAETTA VANCE, PETITIONER, v. BALL STATE UNIVERSITY
Attorney:Daniel R. Ortiz, Charlottesville, YA, for Petitioner. Sri Srinivasan, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting neither party. Gregory G. Garre, Washington, DC-, for Respondents. David T. Goldberg, Donahue & Goldberg, LLP, New York, NY. Daniel R. Ortiz, Cou...
Judge Panel: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 Thomas, Justice concurring Ginsburg, Justice w...
Case Date:June 24, 2013
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page ___

___ U.S. ___ (2013)

133 S.Ct. 2434

MAETTA VANCE, PETITIONER,

v.

BALL STATE UNIVERSITY

No. 11-556

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 2013

Argued November 26, 2012.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT.

[133 S.Ct. 2437] Syllabus [*]

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, 761, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633), 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, 807, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662; Ellerth, supra, at 765, 118 S.Ct. 2257.

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. 2443 - 2454.

(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. 2443 - 2446.

(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 [133 S.Ct. 2438] 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. 2445 - 2448.

(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, 118 S.Ct. 2257.

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. 2448 - 2452.

(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. 2451 - 2452.

646 F.3d 461, affirmed.

Daniel R. Ortiz, Charlottesville, YA, for Petitioner.

Sri Srinivasan, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting neither party.

Gregory G. Garre, Washington, DC-, for Respondents.

David T. Goldberg, Donahue & Goldberg, LLP, New York, NY. Daniel R. Ortiz, Counsel of Record, University of Virginia School of Law, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Charlottesville, VA. for Petitioner.

Scott E. Shockley, Lester H. Cohen, Shawn A. Neal, Defur Voran LLP, Mun-cie, IN, Gregory G. Garre, Counsel of Record, Jessica E. Phillips, Roman Martinez, Latham & Watkins LLP, Washington. DC. for Respondent.

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.

OPINION

[133 S.Ct. 2439] Alito, Justice.

In this case, we decide a question left open in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998), and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998), namely, who qualifies as a "supervisor" in a case in which an employee asserts a Title VII claim for workplace harassment?

Under Title VII, an employer's liability for such 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, 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. Id., at 807, 118 S.Ct. 2275; Ellerth, supra, at 765, 118 S.Ct. 2257. Under this framework, therefore, it matters whether a harasser is a "supervisor" or simply a co-worker.

We hold that an employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim, and we therefore affirm the judgment of the Seventh Circuit.

I

Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, began working for Ball State University (BSU) in 1989 as a substitute server in the University Banquet and Catering division of Dining Services. In 1991, BSU promoted Vance to a part-time catering assistant position, and in 2007 she applied and was selected for a position as a full-time catering assistant.

Over the course of her employment with BSU, Vance lodged numerous complaints of racial discrimination and retaliation, but most of those incidents are not at issue here. For present purposes, the only relevant incidents concern Vance's interactions with a fellow BSU employee, Saundra Davis.

During the time in question, Davis, a white woman, was employed as a catering specialist in the Banquet and Catering division. The parties vigorously dispute the precise nature and scope of Davis' duties, but they agree that Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. See No. 1:06-cv-1452-SEB-JMS, 2008 WL 4247836, at *12 (S.D.Ind., Sept. 10, 2008) ("Vance makes no allegations that Ms. Davis possessed any such power"); Brief for Petitioner 9-11 (describing Davis' authority over Vance); Brief for Respondent 39 ("[A]ll agree that Davis lacked the authority to take tangible employments [sic] actions against petitioner").

In late 2005 and early 2006, Vance filed internal com- plaints with BSU and charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging racial harassment and discrimination, and many of these complaints and charges pertained to Davis. 646 F.3d 461, 467 (CA7 2011). Vance complained that Davis "gave her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her." Ibid. She alleged that she was "left alone in the kitchen with Davis, who smiled at her"; that Davis "blocked" [133 S.Ct. 2440] her on an elevator and "stood there with her cart smiling"; and that Davis often gave her "weird" looks. Ibid, (internal quotation marks omitted).

Vance's workplace strife persisted despite BSU's attempts to address the problem...

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