The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in Vance v. Ball State University, a case that could decide who can be considered a “job supervisor” in a federal workplace discrimination lawsuit.
The suit 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.
Unusually, both sides in yesterday’s hearing agreed the appeals court used the wrong legal standard for defining a job supervisor, saying the lower court test was too limited and that a supervisor could also be someone with power to direct an employee’s daily work activities.
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.
ACE and a coalition of higher education groups submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Ball State, arguing that the lower courts had reached the right result and suggesting a definition of supervisor for Title VII purposes most appropriate 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,” ACE General Counsel Ada Meloy told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “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 case will be decided by June 2013 when the Supreme Court’s current term ends.