On Wednesday, a group of 10 top civil and workers’ rights organizations, led by the National Partnership for Women & Families, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in an important workplace harassment case, Vance v. Ball State, which will determine the extent to which employers can be held accountable for harassment by supervisors. The brief urges the Supreme Court to adopt a reasonable, common sense definition of “supervisor,” arguing that failure to do so will have grave consequences for victims of harassment and the rights guaranteed by our nation’s civil rights laws.
At issue in Vance v. Ball State is the meaning of the term “supervisor” for purposes of determining employers’ liability for harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under that law, employers may be held vicariously liable for harassment by a supervisor. The question before the Court is whether only those employees with formal authority to make “tangible” employment decisions like hiring and firing are supervisors as compared to those with the authority to direct and oversee another employee’s daily work.
Maetta Vance was working at Ball State University when she was harassed by another employee who Vance alleged had the authority to tell her what to do and how to clock her hours. After filing repeated complaints, Vance sued the university for violating Title VII. The university argued that it could not be held liable because Vance’s harasser did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline her. Lower courts agreed. Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.
Filed in support of Vance, the friend-of-the-court brief argues that the Court must reject the “overly restrictive” definition of supervisor used by the lower courts because it does not reflect the realities of the workplace or the Court’s previously demonstrated understanding of what it means to be a supervisor. “While high-level supervisors are undoubtedly responsible for maintaining a workplace free from discrimination,” the brief reads, “it is the supervisors who direct and control workers’ daily activities who have the most immediate control over their subordinates’ working conditions and the greatest opportunity to inflict harm on employees.”
According to the brief, the Court has already established that it agrees with this “common sense” definition. The brief argues that in a similar supervisor harassment case considered by the Court in 1998, Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, the Court did not distinguish between various types of supervisors. In fact, the Court “repeatedly emphasized the importance of supervisors’ power to direct and control employees’ actions.” Given that precedent, the brief concludes that the Court must use the same common sense approach in Vance.
The brief was filed on behalf of the National Partnership for Women & Families; 9 to5, National Association of Working Women; Asian American Justice Center; Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center; Legal Momentum; National Women’s Law Center; Service Employees International Union (SEIU); and Women Employed.
The brief is available online at: NationalPartnership.org/Vance.