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By Jonathan Stempel and Lawrence Hurley
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday made it harder for workers to sue their employers over alleged harassment in the workplace, ruling against a catering assistant at an Indiana university who claimed she was discriminated against on the basis of race.
In a 5-4 vote divided along familiar ideological lines, the court said Maetta Vance, who is black, could not sue Ball State University over the alleged taunts and threats made by a white colleague who Vance considered to be her supervisor.
The court had in 1998 said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 let harassment victims hold their employers responsible for improper conduct by a supervisor, but never defined exactly what a supervisor was.
Writing for the majority, conservative Justice Samuel Alito adopted a narrower version of a supervisor than Vance had proposed.
"An employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., 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,'" Alito wrote.
The court rejected Vance's argument that a supervisor was anyone with day-to-day oversight of an employee's activities.
It also rejected what Alito called the "nebulous" guidance by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to link supervisor status to the exercise of significant oversight over an employee's daily work.
Joining Alito's majority opinion were the court's other conservative members: Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. She said the majority "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."
Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the dissent.
Monday's decision upheld a June 2011 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of Ball State, which is based in Muncie, Indiana.
The federal government officially supported neither party. Several women's and civil rights groups supported Vance's appeal, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group, the National Retail Federation and various conservative groups supported Ball State.
Vance, who prepared everything from boxed lunches to formal dinners in her job as a catering assistant at Ball State, had claimed she faced racial epithets and threats of physical harm at work.
Many of her problems stemmed from her dealings with Saundra Davis, a white woman she viewed as a supervisor. She said general manager Bill Kimes, also white, did not protect her and treated other workers better.
Vance said Ball State eventually retaliated against her complaints by making her a "glorified salad girl" who cut vegetables and washed fruit, despite a recent promotion.
Daniel Ortiz, a lawyer for Vance, was not immediately available for comment. Ball State had no immediate comment.
The case is Vance v. Ball State University, U.S. Supreme Court. No. 11-556.
(Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)