One of the more significant cases the United States Supreme Court is hearing this term is one that could settle who is a supervisor in the workplace. It's important because defining who is a supervisor and who is simply a coworker is at the heart of many sexual harassment lawsuits, and the court's decision may get some employers off the hook and put others at risk of having to pay significant damages. The case before the high court involves a woman who works in food service at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. She has sued her employer for what she alleges is a racially hostile workplace.
The plaintiff says her supervisor used racial epithets and threats to intimidate her on numerous occasions. The supervisor says it was the other way around. The university investigated but could not determine who was telling the truth, so both women were ordered into counseling. A federal appeals court tossed out the harassment suit because, in the court's opinion, the woman allegedly harassing the plaintiff was not her supervisor. The appeals court said a supervisor has the authority to hire, fire, impose discipline, change pay scales, and so on. The alleged harasser did not have those responsibilities, and the court reasoned she was not actually in charge and dismissed the case against Ball State.
The plaintiff appealed on the grounds that other courts have decided that a supervisor need not have hiring and firing authority. A supervisor, she claims, can be someone who sets schedules, makes work assignments and makes recommendations various employment actions. It will be up to the Supreme Court to figure out whether the broad definition of a supervisor or a more constrained definition is the standard under federal employment law.
The crux of the case is this: A supervisor who breaks harassment laws is considered to be an agent of the employer, so the harassment victim is entitled to damages. If the harasser is only a coworker, the plaintiff has to prove that the violations were brought to the employer's attention but nothing was done. While the case is being argued this month, a decision isn't likely before the first of next year.
Source: National Public Radio, "Supreme Court to look at who is a supervisor in harassment cases," Nina Totenberg, Nov. 26, 2012