New 'Supervisor' Definitions Could Increase Discrimination Lawsuits

The Supreme Court's decision could reduce employer liability, but it also may increase racial-discrimination and sexual-harassment cases.

Is your pending discrimination case "frivolous" litigation? Many racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits could be thrown out as such next year, depending how the U.S. Supreme Court decides to clarify its definition of "supervisor" and "coworker."


Justices recently held an hour-long oral argument to discuss whether a person without the ability to hire or discipline employees can qualify as a supervisor in racial, sexual and religious discrimination cases. An employer automatically assumes liability if a supervisor is accused of harassment; when a coworker is accused, the victim must prove neglect on the part of the employer to extend liability.

Liable for Discrimination?

The debate stems from the Vance v. Ball State University racial discrimination case, in which Mattea Vance claimed her "supervisor," Sandra Davis, created a racially hostile working environment.

The federal court—which had defined a supervisor as the power to hire, fire, demote or discipline—threw out Vance's case, as Davis' job responsibilities did not include these functions. Vance appealed because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) defines "supervisor" as anyone who has authority to assign or direct daily work activities or recommend employment actions. Listen to the radio broadcast to learn more.

"There are lots of situations where people have power over other employees when they don't have the power to fire them, to discipline them, to promote them, to set their wages or things like that," says University of Virginia law professor Daniel Ortiz, who represents Vance. The AARP and National Partnership for Women & Families also are backing Vance.

"This is consistent with workplaces across America today, where jobs are less hierarchical, more collaborative, and so where you have got more senior employees by virtue of their experience or job title, just a paper title, are in a broad sense team leaders of the like in the workplace," Gregory Garre, representing the university, told CNN. "That doesn't mean they are supervisors in any traditional sense."

Will Discrimination Lawsuits Increase?

If the Supreme Court rules in Vance's favor, it could potentially increase the number of discrimination cases that actually make it to court. The conservative justices argued that a less-restrictive standard could leave companies suffering for the acts of mid-level employees, which would fall under scrutiny.

A decision is not expected until sometime after winter 2013.

 

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