Supreme Court to (Re)Define Supervisor for Purposes of Employment Discrimination Law

We all know the situation: One person — maybe someone in HR or higher up in management —hires you and has the power to fire you. But someone else has charge of your day-to-day work experience. Sometimes, the position arises informally, like when someone who has been on staff for years when you just arrived two weeks ago may take charge of getting you up to speed and integrated into the workplace. And sometimes the position results from deliberate managerial decisions about creating supervisors and managers without giving those people the power to hire, fire, promote or demote employees.

In a case currently pending before the Supreme Court, Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court will decide the question of whether a fellow employee who did not have the power to hire or fire the plaintiff but did manage her day-to-day activities counts as a supervisor for the purposes of employment discrimination law. Whether a fellow employee counts as a supervisor matters in employment discrimination law because it determines the extent to which the employer is liable for the employee’s discriminating or harassing behavior.

In this case, Saundra Vance — an African-American — worked for Ball State University. Beginning in 2005, Ball State gave another woman authority to direct Ms. Vance’s work. That supervisor routinely harassed Saundra Vance, calling her racial slurs and even threatening her physically.

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether that employee — who could not fire Ms. Vance —counts as a supervisor as far as employment discrimination law is concerned. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (the circuit in which Ball State is located), applied a definition of “supervisor” so restrictive that not even the defendant argues that it should be preserved. The issue the Court will decide — of significant interest to employment discrimination lawyers and employees alike — will determine how “supervisor” is defined and will affect the outcomes of the next generation of employment discrimination cases.


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