Vance v. Ball State University

RESPONDENT:Ball State University
LOCATION: Ball State University

DOCKET NO.: 11-556
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jun 25, 2012
ARGUED: Nov 26, 2012
DECIDED: Jun 24, 2013

Daniel R. Ortiz – for the petitioner
Gregory G. Garre – for the respondents
Sri Srinivasan – Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, in support of neither party

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.


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?

Media for Vance v. Ball State University

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 2013 (Part 2) in Vance v. Ball State University
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 26, 2012 in Vance v. Ball State University

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 2013 (Part 1) in Vance v. Ball State University

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Alito has our opinion this morning in case 11-556, Vance versus Ball State University.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

This case requires us to explain what we meant into 1998 decisions concerning employer liability for workplace harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In those two cases, Burlington Industries versus Ellerth and Faragher versus Boca Raton, the Court held that somewhat different rules applied depending on whether the employee accused of harassment is a supervisor or simply a co-worker.

This difference comes into play in those cases in which no tangible employment action such as termination or denial of promotion took place.

In these cases, if the alleged harasser was merely a co-worker, the plaintiff must show that the employer was negligent in allowing the harassment to occur.

But if the alleged harasser was a supervisor, the employer must show that it exercised reasonable care and that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities to prevent or stop the harassment.

While Ellerth and Faragher established a special rule for cases involving harassment by a supervisor, they did not define what they meant by the term “Supervisor” and that is the question that we answer in this case.

The lower courts have grappled with this question for some time and two competing definitions have emerged.

This case is from the Seventh Circuit and under the definition adopted by that Court and some others, a supervisor is a person who has the authority to take a tangible employment action, the term I used later — I used earlier, to hire, fire, promote, or take some other action having economic consequences.

Under the alternative interpretation which is favored by the EEOC, supervisor status depends on a weighing of a number of factors, several of which are quite vague.

According to that alternative, a supervisor must have sufficient authority over the victim, must exercise that authority more than occasionally, and must do so with respect to more than a limited number of tasks.

All of these key terms are hard to pin down.

Petitioner in this case was employed in Ball State University’s Banquet and Catering Division.

She sued Ball State alleging that a fellow employee, Davis, harassed her because of her race. She claims that Davis “gave her a hard time by doing such things as glaring at her, slamming pots and pants around her, giving her weird looks, and blocking the entrance to an elevator.”

The District Court held that Ball State was not vicariously liable because the alleged harasser, who could not take tangible employment actions against Vance, was not a supervisor.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed and we now hold that the Seventh Circuit applied the correct definition of a supervisor.

Ellerth and Faragher adapted a framework that draws a sharp line between supervisors and co-workers, and the Seventh Circuit’s clear definition of a supervisor fits best within this highly structured framework.

Perhaps, the greatest advantage of this approach is that it permits harassment cases to be litigated in an orderly and understandable way, and this serves the best interest of all concerned.

Under our approach, the status of an alleged harasser will often be obvious before the litigation even begins, and it is likely to be resolved as a matter of law before trial.

This permits the parties to formulate a single coherent theory to be presented to the jury and it simplifies the task of juries which are already required to grapple with complex, instructions, and employment discrimination cases.

A jury that understands the law that it has to apply is more likely to return a fair verdict.

By contrast, the alternative definition of a supervisor is a study in ambiguity.

And as a result of this ambiguity, the status of an alleged harasser would often remain unresolved throughout the trial.

The parties would have to present their cases under two separate legal frameworks and the job of the jury would be greatly complicated.

Contrary to the dissent, the approach that we adopt will not thwart recovery for workplace harassment.

Two major points should be kept in mind: First, regardless of whether an alleged harasser is classified as a supervisor or a co-worker, a harassment victim may always recover by proving that the employer was negligent in allowing the harassment to occur.

There is nothing unusual or particularly onerous about this requirement.It is very common in the law of torts.

And the different between or the plaintiff must show in a co-worker case, as opposed to a supervisor case, should not be exaggerated.

Perhaps, the biggest difference is the party who wins if the Jury thinks that the evidence favoring the plaintiff and the evidence favoring the defense are exactly equal.

In all other cases where the evidence taps — tips even slightly in one direction or the other, the allocation of the burden of persuasion makes no difference.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Second, the rule that we adopt today is neither new, nor untested.

The dissenting opinion recounts the allegations or evidence of harassment in a number of shocking cases and intimates that our holding would thwart recovery in such cases, but that charges is unfounded.

The rule that we adopt has been the law for some time in the First, Seventh, and Eight Circuits which together cover Fourteen Jurisdictions: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Illinois, Puerto Rico, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota and Nebraska, Arkansas and Iowa.

We are aware of no evidence that this rule has left harassment victims unprotected in say, Boston or Chicago or Minneapolis.

For these reasons, the decision of the Seventh Circuit is affirmed.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kagan have joined.