Vance v. Ball State Univ., 570 U.S. ___, 2013 WL 3155228 (2013)

The United States Supreme Court held that an employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious employer liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against an employee. Following alleged harassment by a superior, Maetta Vance, a Ball State University ("BSU") dining services employee, filed suit alleging hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Vance asserted vicarious liability on the part of BSU based on the actions of another BSU employee named Saundra Davis. BSU moved for summary judgment, arguing that because Davis was not Vance's supervisor, it could not be held vicariously liable for her actions. The issue on appeal was whether a "supervisor" must have the power to take tangible employment actions or whether a "supervisor" need only direct the day-to-day activities of an employee – as Vance alleged Davis did. Affirming the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the Supreme Court held that a "supervisor" is an individual who has authority to take tangible employment actions, "such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing significant change in benefits."

This decision is significant because an employer can be held strictly liable for its supervisors' harassment of employees if the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action. If no tangible employment action results, however, an employer can escape liability by establishing that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassment and (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. In cases in which the harasser is not a supervisor, an employer may still be held liable but only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions – i.e., that it knew or should have known the illegal activity was occurring in the workplace. In rejecting a broader definition of supervisor, the Court limited the circumstances under which an employer can be found vicariously liable for an employee's harassment of another employee.