IBJNews

Supreme Court ponders definition of work supervisor

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

When does your co-worker also count as your supervisor? The Supreme Court may make a final decision on whether to draw a legal line between work colleagues and work managers, at least when it comes to harassment and retaliation claims.

At issue during oral arguments Monday was a decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which declared that only a person with the ability to fire or hire employees can be considered a supervisor, regardless of the person's other duties. But other federal appeals courts — and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — have a broader test, saying a person can be a supervisor if they have the authority to direct daily work activities and can undertake or recommend "tangible employment decision affecting employees."

The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Maetta Vance, who was a catering specialist at Ball State University. She accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005, and sued the school under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying the university was liable since Davis was her supervisor. But a federal judge threw out her lawsuit, saying that since Davis could not fire Vance, she was only a co-worker, and since the university had taken corrective action, it was not liable for Davis' actions. The 7th Circuit upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.

Antidiscrimination law prohibits creation of a hostile work environment, and supervisors are held to a higher standard than co-workers since they are in a position of authority over other employees. If the 7th Circuit decision is upheld, advocates say, it will become more difficult for employees to hold employers liable for harassment on the job.

But Justice Elena Kagan, former professor and then dean of Harvard Law School, made clear that she didn't agree with the lower court's definition. "I don't even understand the 7th Circuit's test," Kagan said.

Say, Kagan asked, a secretary for a college professor is being subjected to "living hell" by the professor. Would the secretary, who is hired not by the professor personally but the university's secretarial services, be able to sue the university under the supervisory rules under the 7th Circuit decision? she asked.

"The professor does not apply as a supervisor," answered Sri Srinivasan, a deputy solicitor general.

But Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito didn't seem a fan of the EEOC's definition of supervisor when it comes to harassment claims, with the chief justice saying that the 7th Circuit decision at least made it clear who can or cannot sue. What if, Roberts said, a senior employee gets to pick the music that employees have to listen to at work and says to a junior employee, "If you don't date me, it's going to be country music all day long."

Or "hard rock," added Justice Antonin Scalia, to chuckles from the courtroom.

The choice of music affects an employee's daily work, Roberts said, as would other privileges given to senior employees. At least with the 7th Circuit's rule, "you don't have to go through case-by-case," Roberts said.

In an unusual move, lawyers for Vance, the federal government and Ball State University all agreed that the 7th Circuit got it wrong, saying the definition of "supervisor" should be broader than what the appeals court had ruled. The 7th Circuit's "rule does not well fit the reality of the workplace," said Daniel R. Ortiz, Vance's lawyer.

"There's broad agreement on what the standard should be," said Gregory G. Garre, lawyer for Ball State University, who argued that even though the definition should be broader, Davis still would not be considered a supervisor.

Their agreement seemed to frustrate some of the justices because they expected to hear an argument over what the lower court did, not an agreement that it was wrong. "There's no one here defending the 7th Circuit," Scalia said at one point.

The justices are expected to make a decision sometime next year.

Several groups have filed amicus briefs because of its possible impact on human resources, including the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the American Council of Education, the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the Equal Employment Advisory Council.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law associate professor Deborah Widiss said the question of who "counts" as a supervisor for purposes of racial and sexual harassment is extremely important for workers across the country. She said in a statement released by the law school that some courts' definitions of "supervisor" in anti-discrimination law doesn't match the reality of today's workplace.

"The lower courts in Vance held that only individuals who had authority to make formal personnel decisions, such as hiring, promotion or termination, should be considered 'supervisors,'" she said. "However, employees often have minimal contact with the people who make those formal decisions, but they interact every day with intermediate supervisors, such as shift workers. And these intermediate supervisors are often the ones who are best positioned to create a hostile work environment."

Widiss hopes that the justices will broaden the definition of "supervisor" to include employees who control other employees' daily work or who can use their authority to facilitate harassment.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Good Day I am Mr (Victoria Wright) from United state of America, i stayed in NEW YORK, and i have a broke up business, until i found this company email who help me to gain a loan for business,, and now i want to used this short medium to congratulate the below company for the fast and safe money they loan to me without any form of collateral, i loan 500,000USD from the company to save my business and lots more, i saw their mail on the internet, everyone always give testimony for what they did, so i quickly contacted them and they all did everything for me without stress and my money was sent to my account just 3 days later, i was surprise and i feel so glad, now i have a standard business control agent who help me, now i will advice those who need urgent loan to contact him at the bellow email:zenithfirm12@gmail.com

  2. NOTICE:This is to inform the general public that Vampires are real. My name is James Franklyn.,am an agent of vampire,am here to introduce our new world trend to you,a world of vampire where life get easier,we have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich,you will be assured long life and prosperity,you shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness,stronger and also very fast,you will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk.In case you are wildly oppressed by some unscrupulous persons we can still help you fight them.Your protection is assured immediately you join.Just contact the bellow email if you are interested we are here to attend to you anytime you want us. Contact the bellow email for more details. Email:vampirescreed@hotmail.com Sincerely: James Franklyn.

  3. Bravo! Someone else that is willing to speak the truth! Bravo!_____NBCSN is available in almost 2 MILLION more homes than just a few years ago, but Indycar STILL gets less total viewers than it did just a few years ago when NBC took over Versus. Attendance and ratings cratered with the end of season races (just when the title battle got "interesting" HAH!__________And now...new race in Basilia, where Miles celebrated the "rich history" of Indycar racing there. Rich history? What, 7 events in the 100 years of AOW? Yep, some history. Well, at least its an oval. It's not??? Are you kidding me??? Gosh darn road racin furriners.

  4. PURITY RAY LOAN OFFER........ Have you been denied by your banks,or are you in need of of an urgent loan to pay of your bills we are capable of giving loans @ cheaper rate to interested individuals, student, companies and members of the public in need of finance to settle bills, we do offer considerable loans which you can count on. For more information on our various types of loan,then you will have to contact PURITY RAY LOAN FIRM, to help you achieve your desire LOAN APPLICATION FORM TO BE FILLED BORROWERS INFORMATION * Full name:………………………. * SEX * ……………………………. * Country………………………….. * State:……………………………. * Land:…………………………….. * Occupation:…………………….. * phone number:…………………. * Telephone: ………………………….. * Age:………………………………. * Amount needed as loan:……… * Loan Duration:………………….. * Propose of Loan:……………….. * Annual revenue:………………… * Monthly Income:……………….. * Guarantee:………………………. * Payment: monthly or annually Email.....purityrayloanfirm@gmail.com Thank you and God bless Mr Purity Ray PURITY RAY LOAN FIRM we tend to serve you better

  5. Problem: most of the people responding to this article don't know about this service AT ALL! Why? Lack of awareness. This isn't IndyGo. This is CIRTA: might as well be the mattress company because they are asleep at the wheel - something like 3 directors over the last year? Playing with federal grant money is great! This "region" wants commuter rail service, has spent MILLIONS on Transportation studies yet can't even support a commuter bus line? This is largely for suburban riders to get to downtown - not for "service people to work in our hotels and restaurants" ! Get your head out of your backside!! These are professionals, students etc. that don't want to fight traffic, save some money on parking, gas, stress.... if CIRTA would put their federal money into widely promoting the sevive to Greenwood, Fishers & Carmel instead of finding directors and studies - this would be a successful service. Our family uses(d) it daily for the last several years - but the recent uncertainty & now unreliability due to cuts from Carmel has been a problem. Now, costs us an additional $350/month for gas & parking ( $4200/year) plus vehicle wear, service, environmental impact ... YES - this REGION needs this this type of service in order to keep growing and getting the people it needs to fill skilled positions in downtown Indianapolis. Think outside of your own car !!!

ADVERTISEMENT