WASHINGTON -- When does your co-worker also count as your supervisor? The Supreme Court may make a final decision on whether to draw a legal line between work colleagues and work managers, at least when it comes to harassment and retaliation claims.
At issue during oral arguments Monday 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. But other federal appeals courts -- and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- have a broader test, saying a person can be a supervisor if they have the authority to direct daily work activities and can undertake or recommend a "tangible employment decision affecting employees."
The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Maetta Vance, who was a catering specialist at Ball State University. She accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005, and sued the school under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying the university was liable since Davis was her supervisor. But a federal judge threw out her lawsuit, saying that since Davis could not fire Vance, she was only a co-worker, and since the university had taken corrective action, it was not liable for Davis' actions. The 7th Circuit upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.
Anti-discrimination law prohibits creation of a hostile work environment, and supervisors are held to a higher standard than co-workers since they are in a position of authority over other employees. If the 7th Circuit decision is upheld, advocates say, it will become more difficult for employees to hold employers liable for harassment on the job.
Justice Elena Kagan, former professor and then dean of Harvard Law School, made clear that she didn't agree with the lower court's definition. "I don't even understand the 7th Circuit's test," Kagan said.
Say, Kagan asked, a secretary for a college professor is being subjected to "living hell" by the professor. Would the secretary, who is hired not by the professor personally but the university's secretarial services, be able to sue the university under the supervisory rules under the 7th Circuit decision? she asked.
"The professor does not apply as a supervisor," answered Sri Srinivasan, a deputy solicitor general.
In an unusual move, lawyers for Vance, the federal government and Ball State University all agreed that the 7th Circuit got it wrong, saying the definition of "supervisor" should be broader than what the appeals court had ruled. The 7th Circuit's rule "does not well fit the reality of the workplace," said Daniel R. Ortiz, Vance's lawyer.
The justices are expected to make a decision sometime next year.