The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Nov. 26, 2012, regarding who qualifies as a “supervisor” under a federal employment discrimination law. At issue during the arguments was a decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which declared that only a person with the ability to fire or hire employees can be considered a supervisor, regardless of the person's other duties. The decision by the 7th Circuit contradicts decisions by other federal appeals courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions that define a supervisor more broadly—as a person with authority to direct daily work activities and can undertake or recommend "tangible employment decision affecting employees."
The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Maetta Vance, a catering specialist at Ball State University. Vance accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005, and sued the school under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vance claimed the university was liable because Davis was her supervisor. A federal judge dismissed her lawsuit, saying that because Davis could not fire Vance, they were only “co-workers.” Moreover, because the university took corrective action, the federal judge ruled the university was not liable for Davis' actions. The 7th Circuit upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.