United States Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Definition of Supervisor

11/29/2012 / John A. Kvinge

On November 26, 2012, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments related to the definition of a “supervisor” under Title VII. Under Title VII, an employer can be found liable for a hostile work environment caused by severe or pervasive harassment in the workplace based on race. If the harassment was inflicted by co-workers, the plaintiff must show that the employer was negligent in discovering or remedying the harassment. However, employers are strictly liable for harassment perpetrated by supervisors. The question in many cases, then, is whether an alleged harasser is a supervisor, or merely a co-worker.
The case heard by the Supreme Court, Vance v. Ball State University, involved a claim of harassment by Maretta Vance, an African-American employee in the Banquet and Catering Department of Ball State University. Vance began working in the department in 1989, and continued her employment uneventfully until 2001, when a co-worker allegedly hit her on the back of the head without provocation. Over the next several years, Vance had a series of encounters with employees who made derogatory comments and threats to her on account of her race. She, in turn, complained to the university, which disciplined the co-workers accordingly, though not always to Vance’s complete satisfaction. Vance also claimed that she regarded one of the co-workers as her supervisor, which, if true, would expose the university to strict liability. 
At trial, the district court ruled that Vance had not shown that the co-workers that committed the alleged racial harassment were supervisors within the definition set forth by the Seventh Circuit. Under Title VII, a supervisor must have the power to directly affect the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment. The Seventh Circuit (along with the First and Eighth Circuits) interpreted this provision to require that the alleged supervisor had the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee.” In contrast, the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits merely require the authority to direct an employee’s daily activities. 
Both Vance and the University agreed that the coworkers that allegedly harassed Vance did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. However, Vance claimed that since her co-worker’s job description included “leading, directing, and overseeing the work of substitute and part time employees,” and Vance was a substitute or part-time employee during the alleged harassment, her co-worker should be considered a supervisor. The district court did not accept this argument, and granted summary judgment to the University dismissing Vance’s case. Vance appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which affirmed the district court, setting the stage for this appeal to the Supreme Court.
During the oral arguments at the Supreme Court, the Court appeared to question whether they had made the right decision to hear this case. Several justices voiced their concern that there was little evidence that the employees that allegedly harassed Vance would meet even the broader definition of supervisor advanced by Vance’s attorneys. This raises the question of whether the Supreme Court will provide instruction of what definition to use for supervisor, or merely affirm the result from the Seventh Circuit without offering any additional guidance. We will continue to monitor this case and provide a further update when the Court reaches a decision.
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