washington: The US Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments in a case that could determine when a company is liable for harassment by its employees. The case turns on the definition of a single word - “supervisor” - under a federal civil rights law that prohibits racial, religious or sexual harassment in the workplace.
Under previous Supreme Court rulings, an employer is automatically responsible if a supervisor harasses a subordinate. The employer is not liable if the harassment is between two equal coworkers, unless it was negligent in allowing the abuse.
Since those rulings, a rift has developed between federal appeals courts over exactly who is a supervisor. On one side, three circuits say supervisors are those with the power to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline. Three other circuits have adopted a broader standard, one that also includes employees who direct and oversee a colleague’s daily work.
In the current case, Maetta Vance was the sole black catering worker at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. After filing numerous complaints with the university over racially charged incidents at work, she sued the university in federal court in 2006. She claimed that several white coworkers used racial epithets, references to the Ku Klux Klan and veiled physical threats against her.
In trying to hold Ball State liable, Vance’s lawyers argued that one coworker, Saundra Davis, was a supervisor because she had the power to direct her day-to-day activities. Davis did not have to record her time, like other hourly employees, Vance argued. But the district court dismissed the case before a trial, finding Davis lacked sufficient authority over Vance. It also found that Ball State had taken corrective action and had not acted negligently.
The 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in Chicago, reached the same conclusion, reasoning that Davis did not have the power to change Vance’s employment status, and therefore the university was not liable for Davis’s conduct.
Vance petitioned the Supreme Court. Before deciding whether to hear the case, the Supreme Court asked the Justice Department for the government’s position, as it does in some cases.