REPOST ARTICLE SOURCE:
Employers are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on Vance vs. Ball State University because it has the potential to redefine the parameters of employer liability in workplace discrimination lawsuits. In the case ofVance vs. Ball State University, an employee of Ball State claims that she was subjected to racial harassment by her co-workers and when she complained she suffered from a hostile work environment and retaliation in the workplace. She sued Ball State University claiming protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for an employer todiscriminate against an employee based on race, religion, sex, age, or national origin.
Ball State University maintained that none of the co-workers identified in theharassment lawsuit held any position of authority, and are therefore Ball State is not legally liable for their actions. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employer can be held liable if a person of authority, such as a supervisor who has the power to hire, assign, demote, discipline, or terminate a worker, harasses or discriminates against an employee. Since Ball State University claims that none of the employees named in the suit had the power to hire, demote, terminate. . . the plaintiff, they were not her “supervisor” and therefore the University was not liable for damages from their racial harassment of the plaintiff.
There is a clear precedent, set by previous case law, that maintains that under Title VII, an employer is vicariously liable for severe or pervasive workplace harassment by a “supervisor” of the victim; however, if the harasser was the victim’s co-employee, the employer is not liable absent proof of negligence. In this case, the University moved for summary judgment in the federal district court arguing that harassment by a person whom the employer deemed a “supervisor” and who had the authority to direct and oversee the victim’s daily work could not give rise to vicarious liability for the employer because the harasser did not also have the power to take formal employment actions against the plaintiff. The court agreed and dismissed the harassment suit.
The plaintiff-employee appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the lower court. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the plaintiff’s appeal in November of 2012 andemployment law attorneys, employers and employees are anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s opinion. Deciding whether “supervisor” liability rule applies to harassment by those whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim’s daily work, or whether the rule is limited to those harassers who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” their victims, the Supreme Court’s decision could force employers to re-evaluate their current job titles and responsibilities to avoid facing increase liability in employment discrimination suits.