Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 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, 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. Under this framework, therefore, it matters whether a harasser is a “supervisor” or simply a co-worker.
Petitioner, Maetta Vance, sued her employer, Ball State University (BSU), alleging that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, created a racially hostile work environment for her in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was established that Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. In her complaint, Vance alleged that Davis was her supervisor and that BSU was liable for Davis’ creation of a racially hostile work environment. Both parties moved for summary judgment, and the District Court entered summary judgment in favor of BSU. According to the District Court, BSU could not be held vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged racial harassment because Davis could not “‘hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline’” Vance and, as a result, was not Vance’s supervisor under the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of that concept. The District Court further held that BSU could not be liable in negligence because it responded reasonably to the incidents of which it was aware. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, holding that under its settled precedent, supervisor status requires “the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee.” The Seventh Circuit concluded that Davis was not Vance’s supervisor, thus, Vance could not recover from BSU unless she could prove negligence.
Did the lower courts err in granting summary judgment in favor of the employer, Bell State University?
The Supreme Court determined that the employer was properly granted summary judgment as to the employee's Title VII racially hostile work environment claim because an employee was a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she was empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. In the case at bar, there was no evidence that the Bell State University empowered Davis to take any tangible employment actions against Vance.