In a case that could potentially have far-reaching impact, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to accept a case that deals with the question – “who is an employer?” At first glance, this seems like a straightforward question however, it is a complicated inquiry that even courts don’t always agree on. For example – can a supervisor who directs and oversees your daily tasks be considered your employer? What if they don’t have the authority to hire you or fire you? The line defining just who is an employer or an employee is much more complex than many people think.
Further, determining who falls into which category is significant. It may mean the difference between companies being held liable and required to pay damages for employment discrimination and finding them innocent.
If you have questions about potential employment discrimination, it’s a good idea to speak to a knowledgeable Atlanta employment discrimination lawyer who can help you sort things out.
The case that raises this question is Vance v. Ball State University. In Vance, Maetta Vance – a black catering assistant – alleged that her white co-workers and supervisors racially harassed her. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Vance had not shown “employer liability.” Although an employer may strictly liable for supervisor harassment, the court ruled that Vance did not demonstrate that her supervisors’ conduct was motivated by race and that her allegations did not sufficiently establish a hostile work environment.
The Seventh Circuit also said Vance failed to show Ball State was liable for purported co-worker harassment because the university took reasonable corrective action in response to Vance’s multiple complaints. The appellate court considered Davis to be Vance’s co-worker and not a supervisor because it found no evidence showing Davis had the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline employees.
Vance argued in response that one of the alleged harassers – Saundra Davis – was actually a supervisor and not co-worker based on the fact that she did not “clock in” like the other hourly employee did.
When a person may be considered a supervisor is disputed in the courts across the United States. Some circuits believe that supervisor is an individual who has authority to make tangible actions that affect a worker’s formal employment status.
Meanwhile, several other circuits, along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have concluded that an employee who lacks such authority nonetheless may be considered a “supervisor” if he or she directs other employees’ day-to-day work activities.
In argument for the Supreme Court to review this case, the Solicitor General noted “the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation would undermine Title VII’s primary objective, which is “not to provide redress but to avoid harm.”
“If employers face vicarious liability only for supervisors with power to take tangible employment actions, employers could insulate themselves from liability simply by centralizing personnel decisions in a department that may have indirect or infrequent contact with the victim, leaving workers vulnerable to harassment by those with the greatest day-to-day ability to create intolerable working conditions,” Verrilli said.
Additionally, the Seventh Circuit definition is inconsistent with EEOC’s 1999 guidance, which defined “supervisor” as an individual who “has authority to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the employee,” or who “has authority to direct the employee’s daily work activities,” the solicitor general said. EEOC’s consistent position “warrants a measure of deference,” he said.
As Georgia discrimination lawyers dedicated to prevent work place discrimination, we will be following this case closely.
For more information or if you believe you have been the victim of work place discrimination, please contact the top Georgia employment discrimination lawyers at Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP for an immediate case evaluation.