This guest post was authored by Gurinder Grewal

Employers and employees often struggle to determine who really is a supervisor in a workplace.  Is it someone who can hire and fire workers?  Or can it be someone who gives out work assignments?  The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on Monday to resolve this issue in the case of Vance v. Ball State University (Docket No. 11-556).  This means the Supreme Court will review this appellate court decision and resolve a split in the federal appellate courts over who is considered a supervisor under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Plaintiff, Maetta Vance, is the only African-American employee working in her department at Ball State University.  She alleged that she was subject to racial epithets, references to the Ku Klux Klan, threats of physical harm, and other harassing conduct.  After the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter to Vance, she filed an action in federal court alleging various federal and state discrimination claims.  The district court dismissed all of her claims, granting summary judgment in favor of the university.  Vance appealed only her hostile work environment and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Seventh Circuit held that a supervisor for purposes of imputing liability to the employer for violation of Title VII is only an individual with the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee.  In other words, the Seventh Circuit was unwilling to extend supervisor status to persons who had authority to direct an employee’s daily activities but did not have authority to take formal employment actions in regards to the employee.  Because the persons alleged to be creating the hostile work environment were not supervisors under this standard, they were considered the coworkers of Vance.  Prior Supreme Court precedent establishes that employers are only liable for co-worker harassment under Title VII if the employer was negligent in discovering or remedying the harassment, and the university was not negligent in this case.  The Seventh Circuit also found that Vance failed to set forth sufficient evidence of retaliation.

The question that the Supreme Court will resolve is whether the supervisor liability rule established in prior Supreme Court precedent (i) applies to harassment by those whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim’s daily work, (the holding of the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits and the EEOC), or (ii) is limited to those harassers who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” their victim (the holding of the First, Seventh and Eighth Circuits.)

The Supreme Court’s decision will be significant for employers nationwide, as a definition of supervisor for Title VII purposes that includes persons who “direct and oversee” others includes far more persons than a definition that is limited to those persons with authority to take formal employment action.  However, the impact on California employers will be much less, since the California Fair Employment and Housing Act already broadly defines supervisors to include persons who have the “responsibility to direct” employees.