The U.S. Supreme Court will settle a dispute about who can be considered a workplace supervisor for purposes of a federal job-discrimination lawsuit.
The justices on Monday agreed to consider an appeal by a black Ball State University catering worker, whose discrimination claim against the school was thrown out after a federal appeals court said her alleged harasser didn’t qualify as a supervisor. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer can be held liable if a supervisor discriminates against an employee based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Maetta Vance sued Ball State, alleging that a co-worker in the Muncie university’s banquet and catering department — described as a salaried employee who functioned as a supervisor — had slapped her, threatened her and referred to her using racial epithets.
The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ball State couldn’t be held liable because the co-worker didn’t qualify as a supervisor. To be a supervisor, the appeals court said, a co-worker must have the authority to “directly affect the terms and conditions” of employment, such as having the power to hire, fire, demote, or transfer employees.
In her Supreme Court appeal, Vance says the Chicago court’s ruling conflicts with standards used by other federal appeals courts and by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which say that a supervisor is someone with authority to direct an employee’s daily work activities.
The Obama administration filed a brief agreeing with Vance’s argument that the 7th Circuit’s legal definition of supervisor conflicts with standards used by the EEOC and some other courts in job-discrimination cases. The Justice Department, however, urged the court to deny Vance’s appeal, saying the co-worker in her specific case wouldn’t qualify as a supervisory employee under even the EEOC’s description.
The justices will review the case in the term that begins in October.