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Saturday, December 22, 2012

United States Supreme Court to Decide Meaning of Word "Supervisor" in Work Discrimination Cases

 

The United States Supreme Court will be deciding the meaning of word "supervisor" in the work discrimination context in a case brought against Ball State University, the employer, by employee Maetta Vance, who was a catering assistant and who was the only black employee in the catering department of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. The United States Supreme Court has yet to decide this issue but this matter will be decided by the Court in the case of Vance V. Ball State University, No. 11-556.
 
Maetta Vance, who worked as a catering assistant,  said another employee, a catering specialist, at Ball State University had repeatedly made her work stressful by subjecting her to racial taunts, including references to references to the Ku Klux Klan, and by making veiled threats. 
 
Vance’s claim was  for workplace harassment by the catering specialist who Vance characterized as her supervisor. Vance asserted that the catering specialist was her  supervisor because she assigned a daily list of job tasks to her. Ball State University asserted that the catering specialist was not Vance’s supervisor because she did not have the authority to hire and fire her. Vance argued that the Court should adopt the standard established by the Circuits that define a supervisor broadly to include other employees with authority to “direct and oversee” another employee’s daily work, even if they cannot hire and fire that employee. 
 
The Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court's opinion that Maetta Vance did not establish a legal basis for employer liability on the hostile work environment claim. Other courts have decided what constitutes a supervisor for purposes of establishing employer liability and some have interpreted it broadly and some restricted the definition so there is not a legal basis for employer liability. The US Supreme court will decide this issue in Vance v. Ball State University as to when a company is liable for harassment of an employee by its other employees.
 
The Vance case turns on the definition of a single word , "supervisor", under a federal civil rights law that prohibits racial, religious or sexual harassment in the workplace.
 
Under previous Supreme Court rulings, an employer is automatically responsible if a supervisor harasses a subordinate employee. The employer is not liable if the harassment is between two equal coworkers, unless it can be proven that the employer was negligent in allowing the abuse of the employee.
 
Since those previous Supreme Court rulings, a split has developed between the federal circuits, i.e. federal courts of appeal, throughout the United States over exactly who is a "supervisor" for purposes of imposing liability on the employer when one employee is harassed by another employee.
 
On one side of this split of court rulings/opinions, three of the federal circuits, define supervisors in the employment discrimination context to be limited to those employees who have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline the harassed employee. However, three other circuits have adopted a wider definition of the word "supervisor" and applied a broader standard, one that also includes employees who direct and oversee an employee's daily work but do not have the authority to hire, fire, etc. the harassed employee.  
 
United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan discussed the meaning of the word "supervisor"  in the context of employment discrimination cases, whether it be race discrimination, as in the case brought by Maetta Vance, or discrimination based on sex, religion discrimination, or any other type of employment discrimination based on a person's being a member of a legally protected class. Justice Elena Kagan discussed whether the word "supervisor" should be interpreted as being anyone with the power to direct an employee's daily activities, or if it should be interpreted narrowly by limiting it to employees with the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline another employee. Justice Elena Kagan, speaking by way example in terms of an employee who works as a secretary for a professor at a university who is harassed by the professor, said "Professors don't have the ability to fire secretaries, but professors do have the ability to make secretarial lives living hells," she said, suggesting that the Seventh Circuit's approach was too limited.  See The New York Times, Supreme Court Hears Job Discrimination Case
 
On November 26, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Vance v. Ball State University.  The issue to be decided by the Court is whether the supervisor liability rule  applies to harassment by those whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim's daily work,  as the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits have held; or, if the supervisor liability rule is limited to those harassers who have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline their victim  as the First, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits have held. 
 
Legal briefs from the US Chamber of Commerce defended the restricted definition held by the First, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits.
 
“In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), and Burlington
Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), this Court held that under Title VII,
an employer is vicariously liable for severe or pervasive workplace harassment by
a supervisor of the victim. If the harasser was the victim's co-employee, however,
the employer is not liable absent proof of negligence. In the decision below, the
Seventh Circuit held that actionable harassment by a person whom the employer
deemed a "supervisor" and who had the authority to direct and oversee the
victim's daily work could not give rise to vicarious liability because the harasser did
not also have the power to take formal employment actions against her. 
 
The question presented is:
Whether, as the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits have held, the Faragher
and Ellerth "supervisor" liability rule (I) applies to harassment by those whom the
employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim's daily work, or, as
the First, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits have held (ii) is limited to those harassers
who have the power to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline" their
victim.”
 
See Supreme Court Government, Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556.
 

Contact Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law, today for a free consultation. 

 

 


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