Today the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral argument in a case that may impact when an employer is liable for harassment by certain employees. The case is Vance v. Ball State University, and turns on the definition of the word “supervisor” under Title VII, a federal civil rights law that prohibits racial, religious or sexual harassment in the workplace.
Under prior Supreme Court rulings an employer (1) is automatically liable if a supervisor harasses a subordinate, but (2) not liable if the harassment is between two equal coworkers, unless the employer was negligent in allowing the harassment.
Today’s hearing may resolve a dispute between federal courts over who is a “supervisor” under Title VII. Some federal courts define supervisors as employees who have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline, while other circuits more broadly define supervisors as employees who merely direct and oversee other employees daily work.
In Vance, the plaintiff Maetta Vance, was the only black catering worker at BallStateUniversity. Vance sued the University, alleging that white coworkers directed racial slurs at her and that one such co-worker (Davis) was a “supervisor” because Davis had the power to direct Vance’s day-to-day activities and did not have to record her time, like other hourly employees. The District Court and U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed the lawsuit finding that Davis lacked sufficient authority over Vance, i.e., that Davis was not a “supervisor.”
Vance appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. On appeal, it is predicted that the Supreme Court will rule on whether term supervisor should be construed narrowly (power to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline), or broadly (power to direct and oversee a co-worker’s daily work), and thus resolve the current split between the courts. After oral argument, the Supreme Court typically takes several months to issue a decision. We will report on the decision as soon as it is made available.