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Supreme Court Considering Definition of “Supervisor” in Workplace Harassment

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Vance v. Ball State University, a workplace harassment case on appeal from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in which the Court is being asked to decide the proper definition of “supervisor” under Title VII.  The definition is extremely important for employers, because the employer is usually automatically liable for damages when a supervisor unlawfully harasses a worker—a stricter standard for employer liability than if the harassment is done by a non-supervisor co-worker.

The plaintiff in the case, Maetta Vance, claims she was harassed by one of her immediate “supervisors.”  The Seventh Circuit dismissed the case, finding the alleged harasser did not fit the definition of “supervisor,” because she did not have the required authority to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline [the] employee.”  646 F.3d 461, 470 (2011).  Other circuits (including the Ninth Circuit) have adopted a broader standard of supervisor liability, under which an individual qualifies as a “supervisor” if he or she has the authority to direct an employee’s daily activities, or to assign work or set work schedules.  The Seventh Circuit expressly noted this split of authority in its opinion.

Vance is asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Seventh Circuit’s decision on the basis that the definition of “supervisor” used in that decision is too restrictive.  A broader definition of “supervisor” would include more employees, and increase the number of employees for whom an employer is automatically liable for damages flowing from unlawful harassment.

We will follow up when the Court issues a decision in the case in early 2013.