Maetta Vance was an African-American employee who worked as a server in the Ball State University Dining Services Department. ?A fellow employee, Saundra Davis, worked as a catering specialist. Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline Vance.?? Vance filed racial harassment claims against Davis, alleging Davis was her supervisor. ?The district court ruled Davis was not a supervisor for the purposes of invoking the Farager-Ellerth presumption of employer liability.? The Seventh Circuit affirmed.
Even though the employer conceded the Seventh Circuit’s test was too narrow under Faragher and Ellerth and incompatible with the realities of the workplace, the conservative five-Justice majority affirmed in an opinion by Justice Alito. ?The Court assumed that Faragher-Ellerth applied to race harassment ?cases, ?but ?noted ?that ?a? later Restatement of Agency had eliminated the ?aided by existence of agency relation? provision under which Faragher-Ellerth had relied. The majority noted? that? several? circuits? and? the EEOC had ruled that a supervisor included anyone who exercised significant direction over another?s daily work.?? ?The? majority rejected ?this ?analysis because it depended on ?case specific evaluation of numerous factors.?? ?The majority adopted the Seventh ?Circuit ?test ?because ??supervisory? status can be usually readily determined, generally by written documentation.?
The majority recognized the term ?supervisor? means different things in different contexts.?? It noted that the NLRB had taken a broad interpretation of ?supervisor? under the NLRA, but dismissed it as ?an outlier.? ?The Court noted the NLRA had a different purpose than Title VII, so the definition under the NLRA was not ?controlling.? ?Given that Title VII does not use the term ?supervisor,? the majority held it was free to define it in the manner it thought was most consistent with the Faragher-Ellerth framework.
The majority held that Faragher and Ellerth contemplated ?a sharp line? between co-workers and supervisors, and those cases assumed that the line was the ability to take tangible employment actions.? ?Under the majority?s standard, ?the question ?of? supervisor ?status, ?when ?contested, can very often be resolved as a matter of law before trial.??? The majority held that the EEOC test was too ambiguous and ?would impede the resolution of the issue before trial.?? ?If not resolved before trial, a jury would have to be given alternative instructions depending on whether it found supervisory status or not. ?The majority claimed ?the approach we take will help ensure that juries return verdicts that reflect the application of the correct legal rules to the facts.?
In response to the dissent?s charge that the decision in this case contradicted Faragher and Ellerth because under the majority?s test, the individual?s whose conduct was at issue in those cases might not qualify, the majority demurred that the briefs in that case ?did not focus? on ?the degree of authority that an employee must have in order to be classified as a supervisor.??? The majority?? claimed? ?that? ?its? ?test? ?was? ?more appropriate because many companies ?have abandoned a highly hierarchical management structure.?
The majority responded to the concern that its decision will encourage employers to attempt to insulate themselves from liability by empowering only a few individuals to take tangible employment actions. ?The majority said that if an employer did that, it may well be held liable for employees who merely recommend tangible employment actions under the theory that the employer effectively delegated the power to take tangible employment actions to the employees on whose recommendations it relies.
Justice Thomas concurred on the basis that even though he thought Faragher and Ellerth wrongly decided, ?the? majority?s ?rule ??provides ?the narrowest and most workable rule for when an employer may be held ?liable for ?an? employee?s harassment.?
Justice Ginsburg wrote the four-Justice dissent. ?It accused the majority of contradicting the analysis set ?forth ?in ?Faragher ?and ?Ellerth.?? ?The? dissent noted that the Court?s precedents had assumed, without deciding, that employees who direct subordinates? daily work are supervisors.? ?Lead workers can easily use their positions to aid in their harassment.
The dissent would have upheld the EEOC?s definition as a reflecting informed judgment and a body of experience construing the word ?agent? under ?Title? VII.?? ?The? majority rule? reduces ?the robust protections of Title VII, but isn?t necessarily as ?clear? and ?workable? as it claims.? ?The majority included ?reassignment with significantly different ?responsibilities?? as ?a? tangible employment action.? ?That is necessarily fact- dependent.?? ?The dissent recognized that the determination of supervisor status had to examine ?the particular ?working? relationship? between ?the harasser and the victim.?
The dissent opined that the majority?s shift of the Faragher and Ellerth framework in an employer friendly direction will leave many harassment victims without an effective remedy because the negligence ?standard ?may ?not ?apply ?where ?an employer lacks actual or constructive notice of a harassing employee?s conduct.
The dissent would have remanded the case for application of the EEOC definition, which it suggested the plaintiff would be unlikely to meet. Even though Davis?s job description described her as leading and directing, the evidence in the case suggested this wasn?t really the case.?? The dissent stated that the ?supervisor status inquiry should focus on substance, not labels or paper descriptions.?
Vance v. Ball State University, — S. Ct. — (6/24/13).