African-American Maetta Vance sued her employer, Ball State University (‘BSU') alleging fellow employee, Saundra Davis, created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Vance complained that:
[D]uring 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. . .
[D]avis "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). . .
Pages 2- 3 of the Opinion
Finding that BSU was not "vicariously liable" for Davis's alleged actions because she could not take "tangible employment actions" against Vance (and, accordingly, failed to satisfy the definition of a "supervisor,") the District Court granted summary judgment to BSU. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.
Co-worker or Supervisor?
The Supreme Court agreed that under Title VII, an employer's liability for workplace harassment may depend on the status of the harasser - if, for example, that employee is merely the victim's co-worker, an employer's liability may attach only if the employer was negligent in controlling working conditions; however, if the employee rises to the level of a so-called supervisor, the employer would be strictly liable. In order for strict liability to exist, the supervisor's harassment would need to culminate in a tangible employment action.
Fleshing Out Tangible
Citing Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U. S. 742, 761), the Court found the hallmarks of a "tangible employment action," to involve "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing topromote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits."
In determining whether an alleged workplace harasser is a supervisor and, as such, attaches strict liability to the employer, the Court admonished that in the absence of tangible employment action by the purported supervisor, the employer may escape liability by establishing in accordance with Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U. S. 775, 807; and Ellerth, 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.
In affirming the Circuit Court , the Court found that Davis was not empowered by BSU to take tangible employment actions against Vance, and, therefore, she did not rise to the status of a supervisor. The Court allows that employees complaining of harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks could prevail pursuant to a showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur.