This is an important employment law case that has been eagerly anticipated since it was argued in late November.  In the late 1990s, the Court held in two cases that an employer is automatically liable under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for discrimination by an employer who is a “supervisor.”  On the other hand, if a co-worker discriminates, the company is liable only if the victim complains to her employer and the employer is negligent in responding to the complaint.  The question in this case was who counts as a “supervisor” for purposes of this rule.

In this case, which was filed by an African-American employee at Ball State University who alleges that she was the victim of discrimination, the plaintiff argued that a person is a “supervisor” if she has authority to control someone else’s daily activities and evaluate performance.  The employer argued that a “supervisor” must have more power, such as the ability to take a tangible action such as hiring, firing, or promoting the employee. The United States straddled a middle ground in the case:  it largely agreed with Vance that an employee who controls another employee’s day-to-day work activities is a “supervisor,” but it told the Court that Vance has not sufficiently alleged that anyone in her case had a supervisory role.

Writing for a five-to-four majority, Justice Alito’s opinion adopted the rule proposed by the employer, holding that for purposes of this Title VII rule, to be a “supervisor,” a person must have the power to take a “tangible employment action” against the victim.  That is, he must be able 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.’”  The employer was entitled to win the case because Vance did not shown that the person who discriminated against her was a supervisor under the Court’s definition.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, vigorously dissented.  She wrote that the majority decision “ignores the conditions under which members of the work force labor, and disserves the objective of Title VII to prevent discrimination from infecting the Nation’s workplaces.”  She ended her dissent by calling on Congress to overrule the Court’s decision.

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Posted in Vance v. Ball State University, Merits Cases

Recommended Citation: Kevin Russell, Details: Vance v. Ball State University, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 24, 2013, 11:34 AM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2013/06/details-vance-v-ball-state-university/