24 June 2013

Law in Plain English: Vance v. Ball State University

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.


Vance was an African American employee of Ball State University. She complained about racially offensive comments by another employee who was responsible for assigning her work on a day-to-day basis, but wasn't otherwise responsible for hiring, firing, transferring, demoting, disciplining, or promoting decisions. Vance filed a Title VII complaint against the University. The question before the Court was whether Vance's fellow employee qualified as "supervisor" which would subject the University to the harassment claims. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that 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. As a result, Vance's claim against the University fails. The practical impact of this decision is that claims of vicarious liability will be subject to a stricter definition of "supervisor."

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