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Justices hear arguments in Ball State case

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In a case that hinges on the definition of “supervisor,” the United States Supreme Court heard arguments Monday morning in a lawsuit filed by a Ball State University employee.

Maetta Vance claimed that her co-worker’s racially charged statements along with unfavorable treatment by her supervisors created a hostile work environment. Vance claimed that she was harassed by another employee that she alleges had the authority to tell her what to do and how to clock her hours. Vance, who says she was the only African-American working in her department, sued the school for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the university argued that it can’t be held liable because Vance’s harasser did not have the power to fire, hire, demote, promote, discipline or transfer her.

Both the federal court in Indianapolis and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Ball State.

In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S 775 (1998), and Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), the justices held that under Title VII, an employer is vicariously liable for severe or pervasive workplace harassment by a supervisor of the victim. If the harasser is the victim’s co-employee, the employer is not liable absent proof of negligence.

The SCOTUS has to decide whether the supervisor liability rule applies to harassment by people whom the employer authorizes to direct or oversee the victim’s daily work, or whether the supervisor liability rule is limited to those harassers who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline” their victim.

The Circuit courts have been split in decisions on this issue.

Argument transcripts and audio will be available at the end of the week on the Supreme Court’s website. The solicitor general was given 10 minutes during the oral argument to participate as amicus curiae in support of neither party.

The case is Vance v. Ball State University, et al., 11-556. Daniel R. Ortiz, of the University of Virginia School of Law, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, will argue on behalf of Vance. Gregory G. Garre of Latham & Watkins LLP in Washington, D.C., will argue on behalf of Ball State and other respondents. Ball State is also represented by Scott E. Shockley of DeFur Voran in Muncie.

Several groups have filed amicus briefs, including the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the American Council of Education, the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the Equal Employment Advisory Council.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law associate professor Deborah Widiss says the question of who "counts" as a supervisor for purposes of racial and sexual harassment is extremely important for workers across the country. She said in a statement released by the law school that some courts' definitions of "supervisor" in anti-discrimination law doesn't match the reality of today's work place.

"The lower courts in Vance held that only individuals who had authority to make formal personnel decisions, such as hiring, promotion or termination, should be considered 'supervisors,'" she said. "However, employees often have minimal contact with the people who make those formal decisions, but they interact every day with intermediate supervisors, such as shift workers. And these intermediate supervisors are often the ones who are best positioned to create a hostile work environment."

Widiss hopes that the justices will broaden the definition of "supervisor" to include employees who control other employees' daily work or who can use their authority to facilitate harassment.

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