U.S. Supreme Court to Offer Guidance on Who is a "Supervisor" for Employment Law Claims
January 31, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Among the myriad issues before the U.S. Supreme Court this term is one that could have ripples for employers and workers around the country: who is considered to be a "supervisor" when there are allegations of workplace harassment or discrimination. That terminology has been important in employment law-related claims since 1998, when courts first found that employers can be held liable for certain types of harassment by those in positions of authority that creates a hostile work environment for victims.
Why is the Court stepping in?
In a word, consistency. Since district courts around the country are currently split about defining certain employment law-related terms - like "supervisor" - when considering the validity of workplace discrimination or harassment claims, the nation's highest court has agreed to take a look.
The case currently before the Supreme Court is a harassment claim brought by an employee of the kitchen and catering services at Indiana's Ball State University. The plaintiff in the case, an African American worker at Ball State's kitchen/catering service named Maetta Vance, claims that her Caucasian supervisor created a hostile work environment with threatening and racially biased comments and actions.
Ball State has vigorously defended their position, arguing that they were not liable for any alleged actions or statements that may have discriminated against Vance because the alleged harasser was not, in fact, Vance's supervisor, but instead a co-worker whose harassment is not actionable against the employer.
Circuit courts around the country haven't been able to agree upon how best to define the term "supervisor" for purposes of employment discrimination and harassment claims. The First, Seventh and Eighth Circuits have taken a fairly narrow approach, defining a supervisor as someone who has "power to directly affect the terms and conditions of the plaintiff's employment."
Other circuits, however, consider supervisors to have a broader scope than making hiring or firing decisions for a plaintiff. Some circuits will use the term "supervisor" to define anybody who "controls the work of another worker," regardless of whether he or she has the right to do so on paper (i.e. actually has a job description that grants the responsibilities of a "supervisor," "manager," "team leader," etc.).
No matter how individual circuits currently define the term "supervisor," the Vance case currently before the Supreme Court could affect courts - and victims of harassment - around the nation. In the meantime, though, if you or a loved one has been the victim of employment-related harassment or discrimination, consider speaking with an employment law attorney in your area for more information about legal avenues to make the harassing behavior stop.