Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an important workplace harassment case, Maetta Vance v. Ball State University. The Court’s decision will determine the extent to which employers can be held accountable for harassment by supervisors.
At issue in Vance is the definition of the term “supervisor.” Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may be held vicariously liable for harassment carried out by a supervisor. The question before the Court is whether supervisors are only those employees with formal authority to make “tangible” employment decisions like hiring and firing, or if supervisors also include those with the authority to direct and oversee another employee’s daily work.
“An adverse decision in this case could have grave consequences for victims of harassment whose harassers are the very people who have the power to control their day-to-day work and inflict the most harm,” said Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness at the National Partnership for Women & Families. The National Partnership led a group of ten top workers’ and civil rights organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief that urges the Court to follow precedent and adopt a common sense definition of supervisor that reflects the realities of the workplace.
Maetta Vance was working at Ball State University when she was harassed by another employee who Vance alleges 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.
In their briefs to the Court, both Ball State University and the Office of the U.S. Solicitor General agree that employees who have the power to control other employees’ daily activities should be considered supervisors. They both urge the Court to uphold this less restrictive definition. However, the university argues that the supervisor being considered in the Vance case did not have this authority.
The Court itself did not distinguish between various types of supervisors when it considered the issue in two supervisor harassment cases in 1998, Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth. In those cases, the Court considered supervisors’ power to direct the work of other employees.
“The precedent in this case is clear,” Crawford continued. “The Court must use the same common sense approach it has in the past and that is agreed upon by both parties and the solicitor general to affirm a standard that protects workers and helps to ensure employers will be held accountable when supervisors violate the law. Our civil rights laws are intended to root out this kind of insidious harassment. The strength of these critically important laws and the rights of future victims are at stake.”