December 2nd, 2012

SCOTUS considers definition of Supervisor in harassment cases

As bullied targets learn quickly, civil rights laws rarely apply in bullying situations. The magic combination of a target being a member of a protected class and the bully not being a member happens in only 1 in 5 cases. With all other combinations the target must overcome legal obstacles too great for most attorneys to tackle.

On Nov. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) heard oral arguments in the case brought by a black woman Maetta Vance against Ball State University. The case is not about whether or not she suffered racial discrimination at the hands of Saundra Davis, a white woman, but whether Davis was her supervisor.

The University is not liable for Davis’ conduct if the court deems Davis a coworker. Vance contends that Davis acted as her supervisor. That’s the crux of the case. The final decision affects the liability of employers in harassment cases and could make it even tougher to sue employers for one of their employee’s wrongdoing.

Cases heard by SCOTUS were first heard in one of the Circuit Courts of Appeal. This case (No. 11-556) came out of the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. Different Circuits rely on different definitions of “Supervisor” in harassment cases.

The Seventh, First and Eight Circuits say a supervisor is “someone with power to directly affect the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment.” A hostile work environment becomes a condition of employment. Three other circuits use a broader definition of supervisor, as “an employee who controls the work of another worker,” regardless of the job description. That would pertain to lead workers and coworkers given the responsibility to direct work on behalf of higher ranking managers.

Ball State, as defendant, wants the court to define supervisors as individuals only with “the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline.” It contends that Davis was Vance’s coworker.

The definition of supervisor is critical because, since 1998, employers are vicariously liable for discrimination that creates a hostile work environment, depending on the harasser’s status. An employer is responsible for a supervisor’s harassment, but when the harasser is a co-worker, the employer is liable only if the victim proves that the employer was negligent in failing to stop the harassment.

Ball State won in trial court by summary judgement (no merits of Vance’s case were heard, scant evidence presented). The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court (you can read that Court’s 3-judge June, 2011 decision here). Attorneys for Maetta Vance are appealing to the SCOTUS. Plaintiff’s attorney, Daniel Ortiz, University of Virginia Law School professor, alluded to evidence that the catering department manager had referred to Davis as a supervisor in his oral argument.

The U.S. Department of Justice provided Srikanth Srinivasan, Deputy Solicitor General, for oral arguments but representing neither party in the case. He stated

When a person controls a subordinate’s daily work activities and subjects her to harassment, that person qualifies as a supervisor … the victim will lack the same ability to resist the harassment or to report it as would be the case if the harassment were conducted by a coworker

The Supreme Court could overturn the appeals court’s narrow definition of a supervisor. The justices could send the case back to the trial court to gather a full factual record and apply the legal standard that an employee who controls another employee’s work qualifies as a supervisor. The Seventh Circuit did not consider or hear all the evidence about Vance’s discrimination. It ended the case with a decision based on the fact that it did not consider Davis a supervisor, but strangely opined that Vance did not suffer discrimination.

Watch for the SCOTUS opinion in this case next spring at the Supreme Court website. It will certainly affect any application of the law to the Healthy Workplace Bill when it finally is enacted in the states.


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This entry was posted on Sunday, December 2nd, 2012 at 11:13 am and is filed under Fairness & Social Justice Denied, Rulings by Courts, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education, Workplace Bullying Laws. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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