Supreme Court: When is an employer liable for harassment?

The exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2012 in Washington, DC.
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Maetta Vance started working in Ball State University's Banquet and Catering Department in 1989, and for much of that time, she was the sole African-American employee in that division. She was also, her coworkers have corroborated, subjected to race-based harassment by others working there.

Vance ultimately sued the university and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices today considered whether Ball State is liable for the harassment Vance faced. Their decision hinges on whether the primary harasser, a "catering specialist" named Saundra Davis, should be considered Vance's "supervisor."

The court's decision could set new guidelines for interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans employers -- or their "agents," such as supervisors -- from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The question of who counts as a "supervisor" comes as the number of workplace harassment charges filed continues to grow -- setting up high stakes for both workers and the businesses responsible for them.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that a business is automatically liable if a supervisor harasses a subordinate. If the harassment takes place between two co-workers, the company may still be liable, but it's not automatically responsible.

Federal appeals courts, however, disagree over who counts as a "supervisor." When Vance took her case to court, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals threw it out, arguing that a supervisor must have the ability to hire and fire subordinates -- authority that Davis didn't have. Other federal courts have used a broader definition of "supervisor" that includes the supervision of daily work activities.

Vance's attorney David Ortiz asked the Supreme Court today to reverse the Seventh Circuit decision and send the case back to the lower courts for further review. While Davis could not fire Vance, she still oversaw Vance's daily routine as a catering assistant, he pointed out. In a brief filed with the court, Ortiz called the Seventh Circuit's narrow definition of supervisor "nonsensical" and "arbitrary."

In the courtroom today, however, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts made the case that applying a broader definition would be arbitrary. "I would have thought the benefit of the Seventh Circuit's test was that you don't have to go through those case-by-case basis," he said.

Meanwhile, other justices questioned whether there was enough evidence -- under any standard -- to call Davis a "supervisor."