Legal Briefing: Supreme Court Ruling Limits Harassment Claims


Aug. 21, 2013

Maetta Vance, a black catering assistant at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, alleged that a white co-employee, Saundra Davis, racially harassed her. She claimed that Davis slapped her, threatened bodily harm and blocked her from exiting a work elevator, as well as made racial jokes in her presence. After Vance complained, Ball State conducted investigations and took disciplinary actions. Vance sued Ball State for racial harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana dismissed the lawsuit in favor of Ball State and held that the employer was not vicariously liable for Davis’ actions because she was not a supervisor, and it promptly remedied her complaints. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. It found no evidence that Davis had the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline employees, and rejected Vance’s argument that Davis was her supervisor.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision. It held that, to be a supervisor for vicarious liability purposes under Title VII, an employee must be authorized by the employer to take tangible employment actions against another worker. A Title VII supervisor must have the authority to make a “significant change” in another worker’s employment status, such as through hiring, firing or failing to promote. The court rejected the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s long-standing broader definition of “supervisor” that includes employees who direct other workers’ day-to-day activities. Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556, U.S. Supreme Court (June 24, 2013).

IMPACT: Under the federal Title VII, an employer can only be held strictly liable for the harassing conduct of employees if the employee is a supervisor. In all cases, employers must have complaint procedures and an effective process to investigate and resolve harassment allegations.

James E. Hall, Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners in the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has offices in Los Angeles and Chicago. To comment, email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

What’s New at

blog workforce

Come see what we’re building in the world of predictive employee scheduling, superior labor insights and next-gen employee apps. We’re on a mission to automate workforce management for hourly employees and bring productivity, optimization and engagement to the frontline.

Book a call
See the software

Related Articles

workforce blog


Minimum Wage by State in 2023 – All You Need to Know

Summary Twenty-three states and D.C. raised their minimum wage rates in 2023, effective January 1.  Thr...

federal law, minimum wage, pay rates, state law, wage law compliance

workforce blog


New Labor Laws Taking Effect in 2023

The new year is fast approaching, and with its arrival comes a host of new labor laws that will impact ...

labor laws, minimum wage, wage and hour law

workforce blog


Wage and Hour Laws in 2022: What Employers Need to Know

Whether a mom-and-pop shop with a handful of employees or a large corporation staffing thousands, compl...

compliance, wage and hour law