In June of 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two cases involving claims of sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which defined the circumstances under which an employer was liable for harassment committed by a supervisor. In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998) and Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), the Supreme Court ruled that employers are strictly liable for harassment inflicted by supervisors, but they can assert an affirmative defense when the harassment does not result in a tangible employment action. However, if the harasser is not a supervisor, the employer is only liable if it was negligent in either discovering or remedying the harassment. In a recent case involving racial harassment under Title VII, a plaintiff has petitioned the Supreme Court to accept her case to determine the proper definition of supervisor. If the Supreme Court accepts the case and renders a determination, the case could have far reaching impacts on employers.
Specifically, in the case of Maetta Vance v. Ball State University, et al., a dining services employee and the only African American in her department at Ball State University (“Ball State”) alleged that employees in her department created a hostile work environment by making racially offensive comments to her, including using racial epithets and making veiled threats of physical harm. She eventually filed suit in Federal District Court. The District Court dismissed the case in favor of the defendants and Ms. Vance appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, alleging that three supervisors, Kimes, Adkins, and Davis harassed her on account of her race. The court found that Kimes and Adkins did not engage in the type of conduct required to support a hostile work environment claim. On the subject of Davis, the court ruled that although Davis held the title of supervisor, he did not have supervisory authority over Ms. Vance because he did not have the power to directly affect the terms and conditions of her employment, including the right to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline her. Consequently, the Seventh Circuit evaluated Ball State’s liability to Ms. Vance under the co-worker theory of liability and found that there was no basis for liability because Ball State took prompt and remedial action in response to Ms. Vance’s complaints of racial harassment.
Ms. Vance has filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to take her case in order to determine whether the definition of supervisor applied by the lower courts in her case was proper. Ms. Vance maintains that the Seventh Circuit’s narrow definition of supervisor conflicts with other circuit courts of appeal which have found that the authority to direct an employee’s daily activities is sufficient to confer supervisory status under Title VII. Ms. Vance wants the Supreme Court to establish a uniform definition of supervisor for purposes of employer liability. The Supreme Court has asked the U.S. Solicitor General to weigh in on the petition.
If the Supreme Court accepts the case and adopts the broader definition of supervisor adopted by some circuit courts, it could result in heightened liability for employers. Employees who merely direct the daily activities of employees, without any meaningful input to direct the terms and conditions of employment, would be deemed supervisory agents of the employer, subjecting the employer to a heightened standard of liability in harassment cases under Title VII.