12/18/2012 // Los Angeles , CA, USA // Keller Grover LLP // Los Angeles employment lawyer Eric Grover // (press release)
Los Angeles, C.A.—What actually makes someone the “boss?” That is exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court is currently trying to decide after they heard arguments in a case involving workplace discrimination at Ball State University, reports Eric Grover, a Los Angeles employment lawyer.
Just 14 years ago, it was decided that employers could be held liable for workplace harassment by supervisors in their employment, but it was never determined what qualified someone as a supervisor.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case brought by Maetta Vance, the only black employee in the catering department at Ball State University, who alleges that she was subjected to racial taunts and threats by a co-worker, the New York Times first reported.
A white co-worker Saundra Davis, who had some control over Vance’s daily work schedule but had no authority to fire her, reportedly made Vance’s life a “living hell,” according to documents.
After several years of taunting and racial slurs passed, Vance claimed that Davis hit her on the head once, which lead Vance to file a lawsuit against the University. Ball State maintained that both sides were to blame. They alleged that Vance had previously threatened to shoot a superior, and that the University had thoroughly investigated Vance’s complaints.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit agreed with the lower court’s decision to throw out Vance’s suit. The appeals court also ruled that because Davis did not have the authority to fire Vance, she was not considered a supervisor. In addition, because Vance was not a supervisor, the University was not responsible for Davis’ actions because they had taken the proper steps after receiving Vance’s complaints.
Now the Supreme Court Justices are debating the standards relating to situations where a co-worker acts more like a supervisor than a teammate, which could open the door wider for damages under federal employment discrimination laws. While federal courts have ruled that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, anyone that can hire and fire someone is considered a supervisor, the Justices are looking into whether that definition is broad enough. Instead, it has been argued that the definition should apply to those who have the ability to dictate a co-worker’s daily work activities, regardless of their position or job description.
This could change the employment discrimination law landscape if the Justices rule that an employer could be held liable for a supervisor creating a hostile work environment or threatening to fire an employee based on newly defined criteria for the definition of a supervisor. But, if this occurs, the company will only be held liable if it was aware of the treatment and did not take any action to stop the harassment.
No word as to when the Justices plan to make their final ruling.
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