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Liability for Workplace Harassment Depends on Definition of "Supervisor"

On November 26, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Vance v. Ball State University, a case that will define who qualifies as a supervisor in instances of alleged workplace harassment. Maetta Vance, an African-American employee who worked for 18 years in the banquet and catering department at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based on race by a supervisor, Sandra Davis.  Ms. Vance complained to the University, which conducted an internal investigation.  The University ultimately took no disciplinary action against Ms. Davis.  The University required both women to attend counseling as a result of the alleged incidents.

The paramount issue in this case is whether Ms. Davis qualifies as a “supervisor” of Ms. Vance. The definition of “supervisor” is critical because, under Title VII, employers are vicariously liable for harassment by a supervisor, whereas employers are only liable for harassment by a co-worker in the event that the employer is determined to have been negligent in failing to stop the harassment.

Under the definition of “supervisor” used by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, to which Ms. Vance appealed the summary judgment entered in favor of the University, a supervisor must have the ability to hire or fire an employee.  Under the facts of this case, Ms. Davis did not have the authority to fire Ms. Vance, and the Circuit Court affirmed summary judgment.  Under a broader view adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a supervisor is anyone who has the authority to direct daily work activities regardless of that employee’s ability to hire and fire.  During oral argument, the University’s counsel argued that Ms. Davis did not qualify as a supervisor regardless of the definition selected.

The federal circuits are presently split on the definition of a supervisor for issues of workplace harassment.  As a result, the Supreme Court’s decision could make it either easier or more difficult for employees to establish liability against employers for workplace harassment.  A decision from the U.S. Supreme Court is expected early next year.

©Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed, PA, 2018. All rights reserved.


About this Author

Rachel Gebaide, labor, employment, attorney, Lowndes, law firm

Rachel D. Gebaide is a Partner in the firm and Chair of the Labor and Employment Law practice. Ms. Gebaide represents employers in federal and state courts and before administrative agencies in all matters pertaining to employment law including, without limitation, claims arising under Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).


Melody Lynch, labor, employment, sports, entertainment, attorney, Lowndes

Melody Lynch divides her work among the Labor and Employment, Commercial Litigation, eDiscovery, and Sports and Entertainment practices. She has worked on matters involving Title VII, Fair Labor Standards Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, whistleblower laws and disputes over employment contracts, non-competition agreements, and non-disclosure agreements. Melody represents employers before state and federal courts, as well as before administrative agencies including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Florida Commission on Human Relations, and the Department of Labor.

Melody also regularly represents clients in complex business and real estate disputes, including representation of large luxury hotels with regard to various contract and collection matters.

Melody is a founding member of the firm's eDiscovery practice and is a frequent author and lecturer on the topics of eDiscovery, workplace privacy, and technology. She litigates complex cases involving voluminous amounts of electronically stored information and manages document preservation, collection and production effort including drafting the litigation hold letter, designing the review platform, and through the conclusion of trial. In addition, Melody assists clients in preparing document retention and destruction policies in advance of litigation.

In the sports law arena, Melody has handled contract disputes and family law cases involving athletes in the National Basketball Association, National Football League and Major League Baseball.