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The U.S. Supreme Court takes up the question today of who qualifies as a supervisor when the issue is harassment in the workplace. The court's answer to that question could make it significantly harder, or easier, for victims of racial or sexual harassment to win their cases in court.
Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The facts of the particular case before the Supreme Court today are, to say the least, in dispute. In 1989, Maetta Vance started working in the banquet and catering department at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. For most of the next 18 years, she was the only African-American in the department. Although she was promoted twice, she eventually sued the university over what she claimed was a hostile work environment.
In particular, she claimed that one of her immediate supervisors, a woman named Sandra Davis, had used racial epithets and threatened her. The university investigated, but because the two women provided conflicting accounts of who harassed whom, the school took no disciplinary action and instead required both to undergo counseling.
A federal appeals court subsequently threw the case out because the court said that Vance's alleged harasser did not fit the definition of a supervisor since she didn't have the power to hire, fire, demote or discipline Vance. Vance appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that definition is too narrow. Making that argument today will be University of Virginia law professor Daniel Ortiz.
DANIEL ORTIZ: 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 and things like that.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, most of the federal appeals courts in the country have a broader definition of the term supervisor. Most have adopted the EEOC's definition, which includes individuals who have authority to direct daily work activities - for example, to make work assignments or schedules - even though those individuals may not have the power to hire and fire.
So today's case asks the Supreme Court to choose between conflicting standards and establish what the definition of a supervisor is. The definition matters because when a supervisor harasses a worker, the employer is automatically liable for damages in most cases.
On the other hand, if the harasser is a mere co-worker, the victim, in order to prevail, has to show that the employer was negligent in following up on complaints. The justices' eventual decision will have a major effect on employment discrimination litigation nationwide, making it harder or easier to bring harassment cases.
Ironically, only business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce are defending the narrow definition of a supervisor set down in this case by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Chicago. But none of the actual participants in the case, including the employer, is defending that restrictive standard. Ball State's lawyer, Gregory Garre.
GREGORY GARRE: We recognize that the universe of supervisors can't be limited to those with the authority to hire, fire or demote.
TOTENBERG: But at the same time, Garre contends that the EEOC definition is too broad. For example, he contends that an employee's job title and job description are irrelevant. In this case, he says, it doesn't matter that the job description of the alleged harasser was to lead and direct kitchen assistants. That still doesn't make her a supervisor.
GARRE: In many workplaces across America there are collaborative working environments among employees who may have different paper titles or some additional responsibilities due to their seniority or experience, in that sort of environment employees with better titles or some additional experience aren't really supervisors in a meaningful way.
TOTENBERG: Civil rights lawyers, however, contend that in practice job descriptions are at least important indicators. Professor Ortiz.
ORTIZ: Job descriptions in particular you would think would be highly relevant to trying to figure out the kind of authority one employee has over another.
TOTENBERG: All of this will be hashed out in front of the Supreme Court today, with a decision expected after the first of the year. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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