At oral argument on Monday, November 26, 2012, the Supreme Court took one step closer to ending a split of opinion among the Circuit Courts of Appeal regarding the definition of “supervisor” for purposes of harassment claims brought pursuant to Title VII. On one side, three Circuit Courts define supervisor as those individuals with the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee. On the other side, three Circuit Courts have adopted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s broad definition of supervisor, which includes any employee who directs and oversees another employee’s work.
The definition of supervisor has become so important, because the Supreme Court has previously held that if a supervisor harasses another employee, the employer is automatically liable for that supervisor’s harassing conduct. An employer, however, is not liable for the harassing conduct of a mere coworker, unless the employer was negligent in allowing the conduct to occur.
In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court finally got its chance to determine who is and who is not a supervisor under Title VII. In that case, Maetta Vance was the only African American employee in the catering department at Ball State University. After 18 years in the catering department and after filing numerous complaints alleging harassment on the basis of race by her co-workers, Vance filed a lawsuit against the university. In that lawsuit, Vance alleged that Saundra Davis, a white co-worker, harassed her on the basis of her race in violation of Title VII. Vance’s case turned on whether Davis was her supervisor. Ultimately, the District Court held that Davis was not Vance’s supervisor because she did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline her. The District Court also found that the university did not act negligently and that it had attempted to take corrective action against Davis to remedy Vance’s complaints. Vance filed an appeal with the Seventh Circuit and it agreed with the District Court. Now the Supreme Court gets to decide once and for all.
The Supreme Court’s decision will have a significant impact on employers. If the Supreme Court agrees with the Seventh Circuit and finds that supervisors are only those who have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee, then employers will easily be able to identify employees as supervisors and offer them training to avoid automatic liability for harassment under Title VII. If, however, the Supreme Court finds that an employee who directs and oversees another employee’s work is a supervisor, employers will find it much more difficult to determine which employees open them up to automatic liability for harassment. The Supreme Court is expected to rule after the New Year.