In one of its last acts of the term, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider a case (Vance v. Ball State University) that questions the definition of a “supervisor” in sexual harassment lawsuits.
Under current law, if an employee is sexually harassed by his or her supervisor and the harassment results in an adverse employment action, the company is automatically liable.
If the harassment is committed by a coworker, the company can mount a defense. However, the federal appellate courts have been split on what constitutes a supervisor. Some appeals courts have ruled that a supervisor is anyone who directs another employee’s work while other courts have determined that a supervisor must have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” the employee.
In Vance, a woman said that she had been sexually harassed by her coworkers. One of the coworkers was responsible for directing the plaintiff’s work. The plaintiff claimed that this made the coworker a supervisor.
The original trial court disagreed because the coworker had no power to demote or fire the plaintiff and, thus, did not meet the definition set forth in previous decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit ruled that Vance could not pursue her lawsuit because her coworker was, in fact, not her supervisor.
Because the Seventh Circuit decision is contradictory to those of other appellate divisions, the Supreme Court will hear the case and issue a clarification.
photo by Phil Roeder/flickr