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The Supreme Court of the United States recently decided who constitutes a “supervisor” for the purpose of analyzing harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court’s ruling in Vance v. Ball State University is significant because it has long been established (following the Supreme Court’s 1998 decisions in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. Boca Raton) that a claim of harassment by a supervisor is subject to a different legal analysis than a claim of harassment by a nonsupervisory co-worker.

Where the alleged harasser is a supervisor, if the victim suffers a tangible adverse employment action (i.e., termination, demotion, significant adverse change in conditions or benefits of employment, etc.) as a result of the harassment, then the employer is strictly liable. However, where the alleged harasser is a supervisor and the victim does not suffer a tangible adverse employment action, then the employer has an opportunity to avoid liability by asserting and proving a two-part affirmative defense: 1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior; and 2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.

On the other hand, where the alleged harasser is a nonsupervisory co-worker, then the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions, or in other words, if the employer knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment and unreasonably failed to take appropriate actions to remedy or prevent the misconduct.

In the case at issue, Maetta Vance, an African-American female catering assistant for Ball State University’s (“BSU“) Banquet and Catering division of Dining Services, continually complained to her employer of ongoing racial harassment by a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, a Caucasian female catering specialist. In 2005 and 2006, Vance submitted internal complaints of racial harassment and discrimination by Davis to her employer, BSU, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After the harassment persisted, Vance filed a lawsuit against BSU alleging that, among other claims, her employer was responsible for a racially hostile work environment after it failed to sufficiently address or remedy the harassment about which she complained.

At the trial level, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted summary judgment in favor of BSU on Vance’s claims. The parties to the case agreed that Davis, Vance’s alleged harasser, did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance. Therefore, the court determined that Davis was not a “supervisor” of Vance under the law and thus analyzed Vance’s harassment claim under the legal framework that applies to nonsupervisory co-worker harassment. The court determined that BSU was not liable for the harassing conduct of Davis, a nonsupervisory employee, because BSU reasonably attempted to remedy or prevent the harassment about which it was aware. Vance appealed and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that supervisor status requires the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline an employee. On writ, the Supreme Court determined that a “supervisor,” for whose harassing conduct an employer can be held strictly liable under federal law, is an employee whom the employer has empowered to take tangible employment actions against the victim, such as effecting significant changes in employment status, hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassigning with significantly different responsibilities or making a decision causing a significant change in benefits. The Supreme Court’s definition of the term “supervisor” comports with the First, Seventh and Eighth Circuits’ prior characterizations of the term in the context of harassment claims under federal law.