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Vance v. Ball State University

Supreme Court Limits Worker Rights When Challenging Supervisors' Discrimination


By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the definition of “supervisor,” declaring that to be considered a “supervisor,” an employee must have the power to take tangible employment actions such as hiring and firing.  

Maetta Vance was the only African-American in the banquet and catering department at Ball State University when she sued the University for racial harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vance alleged that over the course of five years, among other things, co-workers slapped her, blocked her way, used various racial epithets, and bragged of their connections to the Ku Klux Klan. Vance alleges that Saundra Davis carried out the most egregious of these hostile actions.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether Davis was Vance’s co-worker, or her supervisor. The answer to that question is critical to Ball State’s liability for Davis’ conduct, because an employer’s liability is greater if the employer permits a supervisor to harass a subordinate, rather than if it allows a co-worker to harass a peer. If the employee is vested with supervisory power that enables that person to take “tangible employment action” then the employer is strictly liable (that is, there are no defenses); if the harasser does not have the authority to take such actions, the employer may be liable but has several defenses which are available to it.

Ball State acknowledges that from time to time, depending on the projects being worked on, Davis supervised Vance. However, it alleges that Davis was not technically Vance’s supervisor, but had floating duties that changed frequently and sometimes placed her in supervisory roles over Vance temporarily.

A split in lower courts regarding the proper legal test for determining who is a supervisor sent this case to the nation’s top court. AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief jointly with the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA). The brief argued that the Court should consider factors including not only whether the harasser is formally in the direct chain of command over the worker alleging harassment, but also whether the harasser has the authority to direct daily work activities (as opposed to merely relaying work assignments from others), and further, whether the harasser is regarded as a supervisor by the victim. “An employee who is given the power to direct another employee’s day-to-day activities and uses that authority to harass an employee is functionally the same as a supervisor with hiring and firing power who engages in sexual harassment but does not take a tangible employment action,” argued the brief.

Over a stinging dissent (stating that the majority’s opinion ‘lacks sensitivity to the realities of life at work’) the Court sharply narrowed the definition of “supervisor.” The majority acknowledged it was rejecting the definition of supervisor determined by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – the organization tasked by the federal government to oversee discrimination complaints -- and several appeals courts. The minority went further, noting that the decision seemed to contradict prior precedents by the Supreme Court itself: “Exhibiting remarkable resistance to the thrust of our prior decisions, workplace realities, and the EEOC’s Guidance, the Court embraces a position that relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ.”

What’s at Stake

The answer to the question of how far the definition of “supervisor” extends has enormous implications for other employment discrimination claims like those based on age and disability bias. This decision is a tremendous disappointment and cries for corrective action by Congress.

Case Status

Vance v. Ball State University was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Our legal advocacy initiatives  - conducted by AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL) - reflect nearly 20 years of work in federal and state courts across the country. Through our efforts, we support the Foundation’s four impact areas: Tackling Senior Hunger, Paving the Way to Stable Income, assuring the adequacy and availability of Safe and Afffordable Housing and Reconnecting People to Families and Communities, and ensure that those 50 and older have a voice in the laws and policies that affect their daily lives.