Supreme Court Could Have Final Word on Who is a “Supervisor”

Late last month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Vance v. Ball State, a racial harassment lawsuit that could have a significant impact on employer liability in harassment cases. From Pete Land and Gwendolyn Morales of law firm Franczek Radelet:

“The Vance case offers the Supreme Court the opportunity to resolve a circuit-split regarding the important ‘supervisor’ definition. In some circuits, ‘supervisor’ includes any individual possessing the authority to direct and oversee the harassment victim’s daily work, or any person who the victim subjectively regards as a supervisor. By contrast, the Seventh Circuit in Vance limited the ‘supervisor’ definition to include only individuals with power over the formal status of the harassment victim; i.e., the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline.”

But solving the circuit-split isn’t just splitting hairs: whether or not an employee is considered a supervisor can mean a great deal if that employee is accused of sexual, racial, or other types of harassment. Thomas Wassel of Cullen and Dykman explains:

“If the harasser is found to be a supervisor, liability can be imposed on the employer. The employer is then forced to demonstrate that effective anti-harassment policies and measures were enacted and the victim to not adequately utilize internal procedures. However, if the harasser is in a non-supervisory position the burden shifts to the victim to demonstrate that the employer was aware or should have been aware of the harassment. It is only once the employee has met this burden that the employer can be held liable.”

If the Court decides in favor of Martha Vance, who says a co-worker of “made racially charged remarks and slapped her,” her employer Ball State will be on the hook for the actions of Vance’s co-worker. But the decision would affect many employers. Again, Land and Morales:

“Should the Court adopt a broad definition of ‘supervisor,’ more employees could file harassment disputes, and such claims would be more costly to defend because a more expansive definition of ‘supervisor’ would demand closer analysis of the specific facts of each case. These concerns are profound for industries lacking clearly defined supervisory roles, such as the university defendant in the Vance case. Employers with large work forces involving multi-layered management could also face new challenges…”

A ruling on the case is expected early next year.

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