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Vance v. Ball State University

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 2013

MAETTA VANCE, PETITIONER,
v.
BALL STATE UNIVERSITY

Argued November 26, 2012.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT.

Under Title VII, 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 (i.e., "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits, " Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761), 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. Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 807; Ellerth, supra, at 765.

Petitioner Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, Ball State University (BSU) alleging that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The District Court granted summary judgment to BSU. It held that BSU was not vicariously liable for Davis' alleged actions because Davis, who could not take tangible employment actions against Vance, was not a supervisor. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Held: An employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. Pp. 9—30.

(a) Petitioner errs in relying on the meaning of "supervisor" in general usage and in other legal contexts because the term has varying meanings both in colloquial usage and in the law. In any event, Congress did not use the term "supervisor" in Title VII, and the way to understand the term's meaning for present purposes is to consider the interpretation that best fits within the highly structured framework adopted in Faragher and Ellerth. Pp. 10-14.

(b) Petitioner misreads Faragher and Ellerth in claiming that those cases support an expansive definition of "supervisor" because, in her view, at least some of the alleged harassers in those cases, whom the Court treated as supervisors, lacked the authority that the Seventh Circuit's definition demands. In Ellerth, there was no question that the alleged harasser, who hired and promoted his victim, was a supervisor. And in Faragher, the parties never disputed the characterization of the alleged harassers as supervisors, so the question simply was not before the Court. Pp. 14—18.

(c) The answer to the question presented in this case is implicit in the characteristics of the framework that the Court adopted in Ellerth and Faragher, which draws a sharp line between co-workers and supervisors and implies that the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor. Ellerth, supra, at 762.

The interpretation of the concept of a supervisor adopted today is one that can be readily applied. An alleged harasser's supervisor status will often be capable of being discerned before (or soon after) litigation commences and is likely to be resolved as a matter of law before trial. By contrast, the vagueness of the EEOC's standard would impede the resolution of the issue before trial, possibly requiring the jury to be instructed on two very different paths of analysis, depending on whether it finds the alleged harasser to be a supervisor or merely a co-worker.

This approach will not leave employees unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks. In such cases, a victim can prevail simply by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur, and the jury should be instructed that the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor in determining negligence. Pp. 18—25.

(d) The definition adopted today accounts for the fact that many modern organizations have abandoned a hierarchical management structure in favor of giving employees overlapping authority with respect to work assignments. Petitioner fears that employers will attempt to insulate themselves from liability for workplace harassment by empowering only a handful of individuals to take tangible employment actions, but a broad definition of "supervisor" is not necessary to guard against that concern. Pp. 25—26.

646 F.3d 461, affirmed.

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined.

OPINION

Alito, Justice.

In this case, we decide a question left open in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), namely, who qualifies as a "supervisor" in a case in which an employee asserts a Title VII claim for workplace harassment?

Under Title VII, an employer's liability for such 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. Id., at 807; Ellerth, supra, at 765. Under this framework, therefore, it matters whether a harasser is a "supervisor" or simply a co-worker.

We hold that an employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim, and we therefore affirm the judgment of the Seventh Circuit.

I

Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, began working for Ball State University (BSU) in 1989 as a substitute server in the University Banquet and Catering division of Dining Services. In 1991, BSU promoted Vance to a part-time catering assistant position, and in 2007 she applied and was selected for a position as a full-time catering assistant.

Over the course of her employment with BSU, Vance lodged numerous complaints of racial discrimination and retaliation, but most of those incidents are not at issue here. For present purposes, the only relevant incidents concern Vance's interactions with a fellow BSU employee, Saundra Davis.

During the time in question, Davis, a white woman, was employed as a catering specialist in the Banquet and Catering division. The parties vigorously dispute the precise nature and scope of Davis' duties, but they agree that Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. See No. 1:06-cv-1452-SEB-JMS, 2008 WL 4247836, *12 (SD Ind., Sept. 10, 2008) ("Vance makes no allegations that Ms. Davis possessed any such power"); Brief for Petitioner 9-11 (describing Davis' authority over Vance); Brief for Respondent 39 ("[A]ll agree that Davis lacked the authority to take tangible employments [sic] actions against petitioner").

In late 2005 and early 2006, Vance filed internal com- plaints with BSU and charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging racial harassment and discrimination, and many of these complaints and charges pertained to Davis. 646 F.3d 461, 467 (CA7 2011). Vance complained that Davis "gave her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her." Ibid. She alleged that she was "left alone in the kitchen with Davis, who smiled at her"; that Davis "blocked" her on an elevator and "stood there with her cart smiling"; and that Davis often gave her "weird" looks. Ibid, (internal quotation marks omitted).

Vance's workplace strife persisted despite BSU's attempts to address the problem. As a result, Vance filed this lawsuit in 2006 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, claiming, among other things, that she had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. In her complaint, she alleged that Davis was her supervisor and that BSU was liable for Davis' creation of a racially hostile work environment. Complaint in No. 1:06-cv-01452-SEB-TAB (SD Ind., Oct. 3, 2006), Dkt. No. 1, pp. 5-6.

Both parties moved for summary judgment, and the District Court entered summary judgment in favor of BSU. 2008 WL 4247836, at *1. The court explained that 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. See id., at *12 (quoting Hall v. Bodine Elect. Co., 276 F.3d 345, 355 (CA7 2002)). The court further held that BSU could not be liable in negligence because it responded reasonably to the incidents of which it was aware. 2008 WL 4247836, *15.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed. 646 F.3d 461. It explained that, under its settled precedent, supervisor status requires "'the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee.'" Id., at 470 (quoting Hall, supra, at 355). The court concluded that Davis was not Vance's supervisor and thus that Vance could not recover from BSU unless she could prove negligence. Finding that BSU was not negligent with respect to Davis' conduct, the court affirmed. 646 F.3d, at 470-473.

II

A

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it "an unlawful employment practice for an employer ... to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(a)(1). This provision obviously prohibits discrimination with respect to employment decisions that have direct economic consequences, such as termination, demotion, and pay cuts. But not long after Title VII was enacted, the lower courts held that Title VII also reaches the creation or perpetuation of a discriminatory work environment.

In the leading case of Rogers v. EEOC, 454 F.2d 234 (1971), the Fifth Circuit recognized a cause of action based on this theory. See Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 65-66 (1986) (describing development of hostile environment claims based on race). The Rogers court reasoned that "the phrase 'terms, conditions, or privileges of employment' in [Title VII] is an expansive concept which sweeps within its protective ambit the practice of creating a working environment heavily charged with ethnic or racial discrimination." 454 F.2d, at 238. The court observed that "[o]ne can readily envision working environments so heavily polluted with discrimination as to destroy completely the emotional and psychological stability of minority group workers." Ibid. Following this decision, the lower courts generally held that an employer was liable for a racially hostile work environment if the employer was negligent, i.e., if the employer knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment but failed to take remedial action. See Ellerth, 524 U.S., at 768-769 (THOMAS, J., dissenting) (citing cases).

When the issue eventually reached this Court, we agreed that Title VII prohibits the creation of a hostile work environment. See Meritor, supra, at 64-67. In such cases, we have held, the plaintiff must show that the work environment was so pervaded by discrimination that the terms and conditions of employment were altered. See, e.g., Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993).

B

Consistent with Rogers, we have held that an employer is directly liable for an employee's unlawful harassment if the employer was negligent with respect to the offensive behavior. Faragher, 524 U.S., at 789. Courts have generally applied this rule to evaluate employer liability when a co-worker harasses the plaintiff.[1]

In Ellerth and Faragher, however, we held that different rules apply where the harassing employee is the plaintiff's "supervisor." In those instances, an employer may be vicariously liable for its employees' creation of a hostile work environment. And in identifying the situations in which such vicarious liability is appropriate, we looked to the Restatement of Agency for guidance. See, e.g., Meritor, supra, at 72; Ellerth, supra, at 755.

Under the Restatement, "masters" are generally not liable for the torts of their "servants" when the torts are committed outside the scope of the servants' employment. See 1 Restatement (Second) of Agency §219(2), p. 481 (1957) (Restatement). And because racial and sexual harassment are unlikely to fall within the scope of a servant's duties, application of this rule would generally preclude employer liability for employee harassment. See Faragher, supra, at 793-796; Ellerth, supra, at 757. But in Ellerth and Faragher, we held that a provision of the Restatement provided the basis for an exception. Section 219(2)(d) of that Restatement recognizes an exception to the general rule just noted for situations in which the servant was "aided in accomplishing the tort by the existence of the agency relation."[2] Restatement 481; see Faragher, supra, at 802-803; Ellerth, supra, at 760-763.

Adapting this concept to the Title VII context, Ellerth and Faragher identified two situations in which the aided-in-the-accomplishment rule warrants employer liability even in the absence of negligence, and both of these situations involve harassment by a "supervisor" as opposed to a co-worker. First, the Court held that an employer is vicariously liable "when a supervisor takes a tangible employment action, " Ellerth, supra, at 762; Faragher, supra, at 790—i.e., "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." Ellerth, 524 U.S., at 761. We explained the reason for this rule as follows: "When a supervisor makes a tangible employment decision, there is assurance the injury could not have been inflicted absent the agency relation. ... A tangible employment decision requires an official act of the enterprise, a company act. The decision in most cases is documented in official company records, and may be subject to review by higher level supervisors." Id., at 761-762. In those circumstances, we said, it is appropriate to hold the employer strictly liable. See Faragher, supra, at 807; Ellerth, supra, at 765.

Second, Ellerth and Faragher held that, even when a supervisor's harassment does not culminate in a tangible employment action, the employer can be vicariously liable for the supervisor's creation of a hostile work environment if the employer is unable to establish an affirmative defense.[3] We began by noting that "a supervisor's power and authority invests his or her harassing conduct with a particular threatening character, and in this sense, a supervisor always is aided by the agency relation." Ellerth, supra, at 763; see Faragher, 524 U.S., at 803-805. But it would go too far, we found, to make employers strictly liable whenever a "supervisor" engages in harassment that does not result in a tangible employment action, and we therefore held that in such cases the employer may raise an affirmative defense. Specifically, an employer can mitigate or avoid liability by showing (1) that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities that were provided. Faragher, supra, at 807; Ellerth, 524 U.S., at 765. This compromise, we explained, "accommodate [s] the agency principles of vicarious liability for harm caused by misuse of supervisory authority, as well as Title VII's equally basic policies of encouraging forethought by employers and saving action by objecting employees." Id., at 764.

The dissenting Members of the Court in Ellerth and Faragher would not have created a special rule for cases involving harassment by "supervisors." Instead, they would have held that an employer is liable for any employee's creation of a hostile work environment "if, and only if, the plaintiff proves that the employer was negligent in permitting the [offending] conduct to occur." Ellerth, supra, at 767 (THOMAS, J., dissenting); Faragher, supra, at 810 (same).

C

Under Ellerth and Faragher, it is obviously important whether an alleged harasser is a "supervisor" or merely a co-worker, and the lower courts have disagreed about the meaning of the concept of a supervisor in this context. Some courts, including the Seventh Circuit below, have held that an employee is not a supervisor unless he or she has the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline the victim. E.g., 646 F.3d, at 470; Noviello v. Boston, 398 F.3d 76, 96 (CM 2005); Weyers v. Lear Operations Corp., 359 F.3d 1049, 1057 (CA8 2004). Other courts have substantially followed the more open-ended approach advocated by the EEOC's Enforcement Guidance, which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant direction over another's daily work. See, e.g., Mack v. Otis Elevator Co., 326 F.3d 116, 126-127 (CA2 2003); Whitten v. Fred's, Inc., 601 F.3d 231, 245-247 (CA4 2010); EEOC, Enforcement Guidance: Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors (1999), 1999 WL 33305874, *3 (hereinafter EEOC Guidance).

We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict. 567 U.S. ___ (2012).

III.

We hold that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a "significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." Ellerth, supra, at 761. We reject the nebulous definition of a "supervisor" advocated in the EEOC Guidance[4] and substantially adopted by several courts of appeals. Petitioner's reliance on colloquial uses of the term "supervisor" is misplaced, and her contention that our cases require the EEOC's abstract definition is simply wrong.

As we will explain, the framework set out in Ellerth and Faragher presupposes a clear distinction between supervisors and co-workers. Those decisions contemplate a unitary category of supervisors, i.e., those employees with the authority to make tangible employment decisions. There is no hint in either decision that the Court had in mind two categories of supervisors: first, those who have such authority and, second, those who, although lacking this power, nevertheless have the ability to direct a co-worker's labor to some ill-defined degree. On the contrary, the Ellerth/Faragher framework is one under which supervisory status can usually be readily determined, generally by written documentation. The approach recommended by the EEOC Guidance, by contrast, would make the determination of supervisor status depend on a highly case-specific evaluation of numerous factors.

The Ellerth/Faragher framework represents what the Court saw as a workable compromise between the aided-in-the-accomplishment theory of vicarious liability and the legitimate interests of employers. The Seventh Circuit's understanding of the concept of a "supervisor, " with which we agree, is easily workable; it can be applied without undue difficulty at both the summary judgment stage and at trial. The alternative, in many cases, would frustrate judges and confound jurors.

A

Petitioner contends that her expansive understanding of the concept of a "supervisor" is supported by the meaning of the word in general usage and in other legal contexts, see Brief for Petitioner 25-28, but this argument is both incorrect on its own terms and, in any event, misguided.

In general usage, the term "supervisor" lacks a sufficiently specific meaning to be helpful for present purposes. Petitioner is certainly right that the term is often used to refer to a person who has the authority to direct another's work. See, e.g., 17 Oxford English Dictionary 245 (2d ed. 1989) (defining the term as applying to "one who inspects and directs the work of others"). But the term is also often closely tied to the authority to take what Ellerth and Faragher referred to as a "tangible employment action." See, e.g., Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2296, def. 1(a) (1976) ("a person having authority delegated by ...


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