Vance v. Ball State University – SCOTUS Defines “Supervisor”

Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito (photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)

A very important ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States came down today defining (again?) what a supervisor truly is. And made it a little more difficult for an employee to sue for harasssment.

Under Title VII and reinforced with the Faragher/Ellerth Defense, a supervisor is defined as an agent of an employer who has the authority to hire, fire, demote, transfer, discipline or otherwise direct the work of a subordinate employee. Should the supervisor harass or otherwise act in a discriminatory manner or fail to report harassment, the company can be held liable for the actions of the supervisor .

But what happens if an employee works regularly with a company supervisor who can direct work on a daily basis, but not have the ability to hire, fire, etc.? The case before the Court, Vance v. Ball State University , takes this question into consideration.

The theory behind this substitute liability for the employer is that a worker who is the victim of workplace bias is less likely to challenge a supervisor than a fellow employee, because of what the supervisor might do in response. So, the theory goes, the supervisor’s rank contributes to the discrimination on behalf of the employer. A mere fellow employee’s biased actions toward a victim, though, is not to be blamed on the employer, unless the employer was negligent about what was happening in the workrooms.

The facts of the case involved an Maetta Vance, an African-American employee who was allegedly harassed by at least two employees in supervisory positions although neither was Ms. Vance’s supervisor. Ms. Vance subsequently sued Ball State University for harassment by a supervisor. The University did not agree that either of the alleged harassers were considered supervisors as they did not have the authority to hire/fire Ms. Vance. Both the The District Court and Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed with the University. Which is how wound up before the SCOTUS. In a 5-4 decision, determined that a supervisor is as it was originally defined, an agent of the company with the ability to hire and fire.

This is an interesting decision that, in my opinion, takes a very antiquated view on the workplace. More companies than not have very blurry lines when it comes to supervisory duties and very often it’s the CEO who solely owns the ability to hire and fire. And it seems Justice Ruth Bader agrees (as Justice Alito rolls his eyes)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the dissent, the court’s decision “strikes from the supervisory category employees who control the day-to-day schedules and assignments of others,” which “ignores the conditions under which members of the work force labor.”

Ginsburg added, “the Court embraces a position that relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ.” During oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan cited the abuse of a secretary whose boss “subjects that secretary to living hell, [a] complete hostile work environment on the basis of sex,” but because the choice of hiring or firing her lies elsewhere, is able to get away with it.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. I’ll bring the popcorn.