Supreme Court to Rule on Case Regarding Definition of "Supervisor"

December 6, 2012

On November 26, 2012 the Supreme Court heard the case of Vance v Ball State, an Indiana workplace discrimination lawsuit. Their ruling on the case will likely affect not only plaintiff and defendants in the case, but also other current and future workplace harassment lawsuits.

Here is a little background on the case. Ms. Vance started at Ball State University in Indiana in the banquet and catering department in 1989. During her numerous years of employment, she was usually the only African-American employee. One of her supervisors did not seem to care for her. She allegedly threatened her physically, and at one point the plaintiff heard that the supervisor referred to her in a derogatory manner because of her race. She reported the behavior, but the only outcome was both women were required to undergo counseling. The worker contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the university. The lower court that heard the case threw it out because they did not think the alleged harasser was an actual supervisor of the plaintiff. She then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So the matter before the Supreme Court is deciding what constitutes a "supervisor." The federal appeals courts seem divided on the issue, with some using a broader definition than others. The court that heard the case above took a very narrow approach to the meaning of the word. They ruled that because the alleged harasser did not have the power to hire or fire employees, she was not a supervisor. The EEOC and some other federal courts define a supervisor as someone who "has the authority to recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the employee or if the individual has the authority to direct the employee's daily work activities." The plaintiff in this case felt the harasser was her supervisor because she was not required to fill out time sheets like the rest of the employees.

What might be the repercussions of the Supreme Court's decision? Employers and other opponents of the broader definition say it will open employers up to all kinds of liability and will make it hard to determine who might be considered a supervisor and who might not. In their eyes, the narrower definition allows employers to provide the proper training to the right people to help avoid discrimination, harassment, and hostile work environments. Proponents of the broader definition say the narrower definition allows people who have some power over other workers to discriminate and harass them without any punishment.

It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court provides a clear-cut answer to what constitutes a supervisor, or if their ruling covers just this particular case and does not offer guidance for similar cases, which is what happened when they ruled on a ministerial exception case. Whatever happens, the Kentucky employment law attorneys at Miller & Falkner firmly believe that no employee should be subjected to discrimination or harassment, and they will continue to work hard for their clients who have been put in this type of situation.

Sources:

Supreme Court To Look At Who Is A 'Supervisor' In Harassment Cases; NPR; Nina Totenberg; November 26, 2012

Questions and answers for small business employers on employer liability for harassment by supervisors; EEOC