Who Is A “Supervisor”?

Seems like a straightforward question, right?  It’s the boss, the head honcho, the big cheese, the person who tells you what to do and (in some cases) is the subject of social media ranting.  However, the question is not so clear under federal anti-discrimination law, as illustrated by a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oral arguments were heard in the case, Vance v. Ball State University, on November 26th.  Additional information is accessible at the Oyez project (including a link to the oral argument audio) and SCOTUS blog (including links to briefs filed in the case).

Under prevailing law, an employer is vicariously liable for severe or pervasive workplace harassment by a supervisor of the victim; a different standard governs when the “harasser” is a co-worker.

The question before the Court is whether “supervisors” (1) include harassers whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim’s daily work, or (2) are limited to those harassers who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” their victim.  Basically, how much power must a worker have over the harassment victim before the employer is liable for their actions?

The Supreme Court’s ruling will likely change the landscape of federal employment litigation, including in the arguably employee-friendly Second Circuit.

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