Gavel to Gavel: Defining Supervisors

Journal Record
March 8, 2012

In the 1999 film Office Space, the insufferable Bill Lumbergh is the micromanaging supervisor. He has come to epitomize the soul-crushing corporate culture panned in this tongue-in-cheek cinema classic.

In employment law, it is oftentimes harder to discern who is a supervisor. On Feb. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court invited the solicitor general’s office to file a brief in the case of Vance v. Ball State University. The purpose is to allow the government to express its view on the definition of the term supervisor when determining whether a company can be held vicariously liable for the actions of an employee for harassment or discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At issue is whether or not the plaintiff was racially harassed by supervisors or co-employees. The difference can have a dramatic effect on legal standards used to judge the harassment claim in question. This is evidenced by the fact that the appellate court’s decision that Maetta Vance was allegedly harassed by her co-employees, and not supervisors, opened the door to certain legal defenses that allowed Ball State University to prevail.

According to Vance and her lawyers, there exists a split in authority between various federal courts of appeals on how to define a supervisor. Some courts have taken the approach that a supervisor is an individual who has authority over the formal employment status of an employee. Traditionally, this has meant that the supervisor has the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline other workers. However, other circuit courts, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have taken the more narrow view that an employee who lacks such authority may still be considered a supervisor if he or she directs other employees’ daily work activities.

Employment law attorneys will monitor the outcome. The scope of the term supervisor adopted by the court will have a wide-ranging effect on legal defenses that can be used by employers as tools to ward off liability in harassment and discrimination cases.

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