Human Resources News & Insights

High Court to decide legal definition of ‘supervisor’: Why that matters to employers

The Supreme Court is currently mulling over one of the most basic questions in today’s workplace: Who fits the legal definition of “supervisor”?

The high court’s ruling could have a substantial impact on employee discrimination lawsuits.

Here’s why:

Under the law, an employer is liable for the behavior of a supervisor who’s guilty of discrimination or harassment.

But if a worker discriminates against or harasses a co-worker, the employer is not at fault — unless the behavior was reported and the employer failed to act to address it.

Who’s in charge?

The case before the Supreme Court, Vance v. Ball State University, involves Maetta Vance, who was the only black employee in the catering department of Ball State University in Indiana.

Vance claimed her co-workers harassed her on account of he being black, using racial epithets, referring to the Ku Klux Klan, making veiled threats of physical harm.

One of those co-workers was a woman named Sandra Davis, whom Vance identified as her supervisor.

Vance filed bias and harassment charges. A federal appeals court in Chicago dismissed her lawsuit because, the judges ruled, Davis didn’t fit the  definition of a supervisor — she didn’t have the power to hire, fire, demote or discipline Vance. That meant Ball State couldn’t be held liable.

Problem is, other circuits across the country have taken a far broader view of what constitutes a supervisor. Those jurisdictions have ruled that a boss is anybody with the power to direct an employee’s daily activities.

So which is it? Certainly many companies have a number of middle managers who direct staffers handling day-to-day duties, but don’t have the power to unilaterally take an adverse action against workers.

Should those people be included under the legal definition of supervisor? Because if they are, companies could be looking at an even greater chance of being sued than they already are.

The Supreme Court decision is expected to come down sometime in June.

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