Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Who is a supervisor under Title VII? (Vance v. Ball St. Univ.)

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in one of the key employment cases it will hear this term—Vance v. Ball St. Univ. This case asks whether one can qualify as a supervisor under Title VII if one is given any authority to direct and oversee another’s daily work, or if supervisory status is limited to those who have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline others.

This distinction is an important one. Under Title VII, employers are vicariously liable for actionable harassment committed by supervisors that results in a tangible employment action.

The appellate court in Vance drew a bright line, and concluded that “supervisor” means “direct supervisor,” with the power to directly affect the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment via hiring, firing, demoting, promoting, transferring, or disciplining; the mere authority to direct an employee’s daily activities is not enough.

Yet, in the Supreme Court, not even the employer, who won in the court of appeals, could argue that the 7th Circuit got the standard right. At oral argument, the employer argued that the bright line drawn by the appellate court is too rigid:

[S]omeone who does control virtually all aspects of one’s schedule but yet lacks the authority to hire, fire, or demote, nevertheless still would be qualified….

By way of example, the employer’s counsel referred to the following hypothetical posed by Justice Kagan:

There’s a professor, and the professor has a secretary. And the professor subjects that secretary to living hell, complete hostile work environment on the basis of sex, all right? But the professor has absolutely no authority to fire the secretary. What would the Seventh Circuit say about that situation?

Even though no one argued in support of the bright-line rule articulated by the 7th Circuit, I predict that the 7th Circuit’s rule will carry the day when the Court issues its opinion sometime next year. The Justices were clearly looking for a bright line to guide future cases, and appear to be wary of adopting a middle-of-the-road approach that will only serve to muddle the issue in future cases. If we are lining up Justices to get aboard one line or the other, the 7th Circuit’s stricter approach should garner more votes than the loosey-goosey standard the plaintiff sought.

For any additional background on this case, visit SCOTUSblog. The oral argument transcript is available from the Supreme Court’s website [pdf].