Who Is A Supervisor?

If your “team leader” calls you racist names, can you sue your employer for harassment?  The answer depends on whether that team leader is your supervisor.  What if that team leader does not have the power to hire, discipline or fire you, but does decide what shifts you work and prepares your performance evaluation?  This week the Supreme Court considered a case that may resolve the question of who is a supervisor under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The case is Vance v. Ball State University (Docket No. 11-556).

Maetta Vance had worked for about ten years as a “catering assistant” in the banquet and catering department at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  She claimed that the Catering Specialist, who was responsible for supervising and providing leadership for kitchen assistants, picked on her because she was the only black person on the staff.  She alleged that this supervisor threatened her, physically accosted her in an elevator, repeatedly made racially charged remarks – including references to the Ku Klux Klan, Sambo and Buckwheat – and slapped her. This employee’s job description said she had a duty to “supervise” and to “direct” and “oversee” others.  But she did not have the formal authority to take an explicit job action.    

In previous cases, the Supreme Court has held that a “supervisor” is an individual with direct authority over another employees’ daily actions. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) .  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a supervisor is someone with the capacity to control a co-worker’s daily activities on the job. But in this case, the lower court ruled that for purposes of suing a company for the actions of one of its employees, a “supervisor” is limited to those with formal authority to hire, fire, promote, transfer, or discipline a worker.

Hearing the case on Monday, Nov. 26, 2012, the Supreme Court justices tried out some hypothetical descriptions of actions an employee might take, and asked the lawyers whether those actions meant the employee was a supervisor.  Justice Roberts asked whether an employee would qualify as a supervisor if that worker had the power to decide what background music would play throughout the day, and used a threat to play music that a co-worker did not like — country music, or, perhaps, hard rock — in order to coerce that colleague to go on a date.  Justice Alito wondered if it would have been enough for a co-worker to assign Vance to chop onions all day, or at least to do just chopping all day, onions and other items, too.

In most cases the lawyers responded, “It depends.”

If the Supreme Court rules that the EEOC definition should prevail, the case may expand employers’ liability for the unlawful conduct of their employees.

Partner Elizabeth Newman contributed this blog post.