Supreme Court Takes on Supervisor Definition in Racially Charged Harassment Case

Seal of the United States Equal Employment Opp...How much liability does an employer have when it comes to racial harassment claims under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)?

That depends on the job classification of the person responsible for the harassment, according to the Supreme Court.

They’re deliberating an appeal of the case of Maetta Vance. She sued her employer, Ball State University, after eighteen years of employment in the banquet and catering department. She claimed that one of her immediate supervisors repeatedly called her racially derogatory names, threatened her, and unfairly assigned her demeaning tasks.

Who is a Supervisor?

The Supreme Court needs to determine if Ball State is liable for the hostile work environment, and that depends on whether the person Vance accuses of the harassment is actually her supervisor. The University contends that Sandra Davis (the person accused of Vance’s long-term harassment) is not a supervisor and, therefore, they claim no liability for damages.

According to Davis’ catering specialist job description, she held the authority to direct or lead the part-time employees “via demonstration, coaching, or overseeing to ensure efficiency.”

In a previous decision, the lower court determined that Davis did not fit the definition of a “supervisor” because she did not have the power to hire, fire, demote or discipline Vance. In Vance’s appeal, she contends the lower court applied the wrong definition.

Lending to Vance’s appeal is the testimony of the director of the university banquet and catering division. In his deposition, he stated that Davis “…directed and led other employees in the kitchen” – a statement underscored by the testimony of two other employees who claimed the department director told them that Davis was a supervisor.

Vance’s counsel, Daniel Ortiz, argued that certain employees can have authority that isn’t of the “hire and fire” variety, but that certainly put them in a position of influence and control of other employees.

“There are lots of situations where people have power over other employees when they don’t have the power to fire them, to discipline them, to promote them, to set their wages,” Oritz told the Court.

A 1998 Supreme Court ruling buoyed that position in the case of Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, in which a female lifeguard brought suit claiming harassment and punishment by a supervisor who affected her work duties but could not hire or fire her.

Appearing as a neutral amicus curiae representative from the Department of Justice, Deputy Solicitor Srinivasan stated, “When a person controls a subordinate’s daily work activities and subjects her to harassment, that person qualifies as a supervisor.”

The defense, however, argued that the EEOC definition is too broad and that there should be further limits to the definition of supervisor.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, expected in early 2013, will affect employer liability in racial and sexual harassment cases. If the Court determines that Davis was not Vance’s supervisor, then the issue remains as to whether the University took appropriate measures to deal with the harassment.

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