The Chicago Employment Law Blog

Supreme Court: Who Is a Supervisor for Harassment Liability?

When it comes to harassment in the workplace, the rule is generally that if a supervisor is the harasser, the employer is liable. If a fellow employee is the harasser, the employer is only liable if they were negligent in allowing the conduct to occur.

The question is, what defines a supervisor?

It may seem like an easy question. Their duties are managerial. They are "in charge." But what if they have no power to hire, fire, or make employment decisions, other than overseeing their coworker's duties?

Appeals courts have come to different conclusions. In many circuits, the answer was that anyone who oversaw the duties of a coworker was a supervisor. In other circuits, the supervisor must have employment decision-making abilities, such as the ability to hire and fire.

Maetta Vance worked for Ball State's catering service. Several of her coworkers allegedly used racial epithets, made references to the Ku Klux Klan, and physically threatened her. One of these coworkers, Saundra Davis, supervised Vance's day-to-day work and did not record her time like other hourly employees, reports Reuters.

The court dismissed her case, and the Seventh Circuit agreed, citing Davis' inability to change Vance's employment status and Ball State's lack of negligence and immediate corrective action.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve the circuit split.

According to Bloomberg, no one defended the Seventh Circuit during the oral arguments. That means the Supreme Court's ruling could very well overturn the Seventh Circuit and possibly adopt the broader rule used by other circuits.

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