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Supreme Court to Hear Case on Definition of Supervisor in Job Bias Suit

October 29, 2012

Supreme Court

ACE, Higher Education Groups File Brief

ACE and a coalition of higher education groups have submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Ball State University (IN) in a case that could decide who can be considered a “job supervisor” in a federal workplace discrimination lawsuit.

The case on appeal was filed by Ball State catering worker Maetta Vance, whose discrimination claim against the university was dismissed after a federal appeals court said her alleged harasser did not qualify as a supervisor.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states an employer can be held liable for discrimination against an employee based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Under longstanding legal principles, a corporation can be held liable for acts of its agents of sufficient authority, generally for acts of a supervisor. The Act does not define who may be supervisor, and the courts have differed on the topic.

Vance claimed that she was subject to intermittent harassment by various Ball State employees, including co-workers. She filed complaints with the Ball State Office of University Compliance, and later the NAACP and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for race, gender and age discrimination. The case was filed in federal court in 2006.

The federal district court granted summary judgment for Ball State, finding that the co-worker named in the suit was not Vance’s supervisor for Title VII purposes because she did not have the requisite power to affect the terms and conditions of Vance’s employment. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this ruling, noting that the university investigated each complaint thoroughly and in a timely manner, and that there was no basis for employer liability.

ACE’s brief argues that the case was properly decided and that the agency-based test for the definition of supervisor for Title VII purposes is the most appropriate one in a higher education setting.

“The legal definition assists employers in identifying those who have meaningful control over other employees’ activities and who thus may reasonably be considered supervisors,” said ACE General Counsel Ada Meloy. “This is of particular importance to the higher education community as employers of over three million workers in a wide variety of jobs. The shifting nature of employee relationships, if subjected to a very broad definition of supervisor, would make colleges and universities liable for discrimination when there is no notice of events at a sufficient level of authority to take action to prevent or stop it.”

The Supreme Court will hear the case on Nov. 26.

For further reading, see SCOTUSBlog.

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