Supremes hear arguments: For Title VII, who’s a supervisor?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 26 heard oral arguments in Vance v. Ball State, a case that could redefine employer liability when supervisors harass, discriminate or retaliate against employees. At issue: Just who is a supervisor?

Must it be someone who has the authority to hire and fire, as one appeals court has ruled? Or can it simply be someone who, because of seniority or some other status, is in a position to direct the employee’s work—and make her life miserable? That’s the view of most Circuit Courts of Appeal, as well as the EEOC.

The difference is important. Employers are strictly liable for supervisors’ actions, but only have a duty to promptly respond to and address the problem if the alleged offender is a co-worker.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in spring 2013.

In Vance v. Ball State University, Maetta Vance claimed a “supervisor” harassed her because of her race. Vance is black. The university maintains that the person Vance identified as a supervisor was in fact just a co-worker under Title VII’s definition.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard this case, dismissed Vance’s complaint because she presented insufficient evidence against her harasser and because Ball State disciplined the co-worker who clearly harassed Vance.

Vance argues the co-worker was in fact a supervisor because the co-worker could “direct her daily activities,” a standard several circuit courts have adopted. However, the 7th Circuit defined a supervisor as someone with “the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, discipline or transfer the employee.”

The High Court’s decision is expected to resolve that dichotomy once and for all. No matter which way the Court rules, expect Vance to have a major impact on Title VII litigation. A decision for Vance could open the litigation floodgates, inviting more employee lawsuits. A decision in Ball State’s favor would be a huge win for employers nationwide.

Click here to read more about the legal arguments behind Vance v. Ball State—and learn what to do to avoid supervisor liability in the first place.

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