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Is your supervisor a "supervisor" under Title VII? Supreme Court to decide soon

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that will clarify who is a “supervisor” when it comes to Title VII sexual harassment litigation. Under current law, an employer is vicariously liable under Title VII for severe or pervasive workplace harassment by the supervisor. If the harasser is a co-worker, however, the employer cannot be held liable absent proof of negligence. The case is set to clarify a circuit court split on whether an employer is vicariously liable for harassment by those with authority to direct and oversee the plaintiff’s daily work, or whether vicarious liability is limited to employees who have the power to “hire, fire, promote, transfer, or discipline” the plaintiff.

The litigants in the case are Maetta Vance and Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Vance started working in the banquet and catering department at Ball State in 1989, and worked there for the next 18 years. She was promoted twice.  During most of her tenure, she was the only African-American in the department. Vance alleges that a superior co-worker, Saundra Davis, was verbally abusive towards her and once slapped her in the head. Vance notified the University about the incident but did not pursue a formal complaint because Davis was transferred to another department. Davis returned to the department in 2005, and the harassment allegedly began again with verbal taunts and racial slurs. Vance also alleges that she was told that another co-worker had bragged about family connections to the Ku Klux Klan and had referred to Vance using a racial slur. There were several other incidents in which Vance claims she was subjected to inappropriate and hostile behavior at the hands of Ball State employees.

Vance eventually brought a Title VII action raising claims for racial discrimination involving a hostile work environment and for retaliation.  The District Court granted Ball State’s motion for summary judgment. The court accepted the defendant’s argument that Ball State could not be liable for Davis’s actions because Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. The court further held that Ball State properly addressed each complaint made by Vance and its actions were reasonably likely to prevent future harassment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, additionally finding that even if there was a hostile work environment created by the employees at issue, the university would not be liable because it promptly and thoroughly investigated all claims, and took appropriate disciplinary action when warranted.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument earlier this week, which is available on the Supreme Court’s website here.

Charles A. Lamberton is a leading Pittsburgh employment and wrongful termination attorney who is dedicated to protecting the rights of employees. He can be reached directly at 412-258-2250, or by filling out his online contact form here.