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Ball State in the Bright Lights: Supreme Court to decide university employee’s suit, which could spur major change in discrimination law

The Hoosier state is at the epicenter of one of the most significant employment cases of the year. In Vance v. Ball State University, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide who constitutes a “supervisor” under Title VII, which will significantly impact the extent to which employers can be liable for employees’ discriminatory conduct. The court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this week and provided some insight on how it could address this important issue.

The case arose when Ball State University catering employee Maetta Vance alleged that certain co-workers harassed her because she is African-American. According to Vance, these employees harassed her by initiating verbal altercations, forcing her to work through breaks and using racially derogatory terms in the workplace. Many of these employees held the same job as Vance, but some arguably served in higher-ranking jobs and had the authority to assign Vance work. Each time Vance complained, Ball State conducted an investigation and took steps to remedy her concerns.

Because the trial court found that Ball State responded appropriately to Vance’s complaints, the key question became whether any of the alleged harassers were “supervisors.” Under Title VII, an employer is not liable for most non-supervisors’ discriminatory conduct so long as it acts reasonably to prevent discrimination from occurring and remedies any discrimination brought to its attention (e.g., by maintaining a sound no-discrimination policy). This same rule does not apply for some discrimination committed by supervisors, however. An employer will be liable for certain types of discrimination committed by a supervisor, regardless of whether the employer did everything in its power to prevent or remedy the discrimination. In most states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, an employee will constitute a supervisor, and thus subject his or her employer to the more strict standard, only if the employee has authority to hire, promote and discharge other employees. In Vance’s case, the alleged harassers did not have this authority, so she asked the court to expand the “supervisor” definition to include employees who simply have the authority to assign and monitor work.

During oral argument, the court did not clearly indicate how it would rule, but did provide some guidance. Many observers noted that most of the court’s conservative justices seemed to favor the narrow definition, whereas Justices Breyer and Sotomayor appeared to support Vance’s attorneys. Justice Kennedy – the court’s “swing” justice who ultimately decides many cases – was mostly quiet, but made some comments indicating he preferred the narrow standard. Some commentators even believe the court could “punt” and send the case back to the trial court without modifying the definition. Given the uncertainty in how the court could rule, and the significant impact this case could have on discrimination liability, employers should follow closely for the decision, which should be issued by early next year.

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