Thursday, November 29, 2012

Supreme Court To Decide "Supervisor" Job Discrimination Case

In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court will decide who is a “supervisor” and who is not, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Maetta Vance, the only black employee in Ball State’s catering department, alleged that a number of her supervisors and co-workers subjected her to racial taunts and veiled threats, creating a hostile work environment for her at the Muncie, Ind. university. However, the University won summary judgment at trial in part because the court, interpreting Seventh Circuit precedent, ruled that one of Vance’s alleged supervisors was not, in fact, her supervisor. The court ruled, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed, that supervisors are only those with“the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee,” and not simply those who possess “the authority to direct an employee’s daily activities.” The Supreme Court is tasked with determining whether the Seventh Circuit’s definition is proper.

Title VII prohibits employers from racial discrimination with respect to an employee’s “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment…”42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). In order to hold an employer liable for a hostile work environment created by its employees, however, a plaintiff must prove, among other things, that there is a basis for employer liability. See Dear v. Shinseki, 578 F.3d 605 (7th Cir. 2009). This element is the issue at the heart of Vance. A basis for employer liability is automatically found if the harassing employee is a supervisor, but if the harassing employee is merely a co-worker then Vance must show that the employer was “negligent in either discovering or remedying the harassment.” Williams v. Waste Mgmt. of Ill., 361 F.3d 1021, 1029 (7th Cir. 2004).