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Supreme Court hears workplace harassment case today

High court will help clarify the definition of “supervisor”

Today, the Supreme Court will hear a case that is expected to help define what constitutes a “supervisor” in the workplace.

Maetta Vance was the only black worker in the catering department at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. During her tenure with the university, Vance says she was subjected to ongoing ridicule and threats of physical violence based on her race by several white co-workers, but specifically, Saundra Davis. After making several complaints to university officials with unsatisfactory results, Vance filed suit in 2006.

Because previous Supreme Court rulings have held that an employer is automatically held liable for harassment if a supervisor harasses a subordinate, Vance’s case hinged on proving Davis was her supervisor. And that’s exactly what her lawyers did. But a district court in Indiana dismissed the case before trial, claiming there was insufficient evidence to prove Davis was Vance’s supervisor. Vance appealed to the 7th Circuit, which agreed with the lower court’s ruling.

But the definition of “supervisor” isn’t so cut and dried in the courts. The circuits have been divided on the issue. The 7th, 1st and 8th Circuits adopted a narrow definition of “supervisor”—and some experts believe an easier way for employers to identify who supervisors are. Meanwhile the 2nd, 4tg and 9th Circuits have offered up an open-ended interpretation, which makes identifying supervisors within the workplace a bit more ambiguous.

Either way, Vance v. Ball State University is a case to watch for in-house counsel.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Vance will impact the landscape for employment discrimination, harassment and almost every other employment claim dependent on an employee’s supervisory status,” David Ritter, a labor and employment partner at Neal Gerber & Eisenberg, wrote in an InsideCounsel column. “Should the court adopt the 7th Circuit’s restrictive definition of supervisors, employers may see a decrease in harassment and discrimination cases. Should the Supreme Court opt for the broader definition of supervisors, employers may see an increase in those cases.”

Read Ritter’s full column on the case, “Harassment and discrimination suits can turn on the distinction between supervisor and a co-worker.”

Read more about this story in the Huffington Post.

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Contributing Author

Cathleen Flahardy

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