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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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  1. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  2. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

  3. I will agree with that as soon as law schools stop lying to prospective students about salaries and employment opportunities in the legal profession. There is no defense to the fraudulent numbers first year salaries they post to mislead people into going to law school.

  4. The sad thing is that no fish were thrown overboard The "greenhorn" who had never fished before those 5 days was interrogated for over 4 hours by 5 officers until his statement was illicited, "I don't want to go to prison....." The truth is that these fish were measured frozen off shore and thawed on shore. The FWC (state) officer did not know fish shrink, so the only reason that these fish could be bigger was a swap. There is no difference between a 19 1/2 fish or 19 3/4 fish, short fish is short fish, the ticket was written. In addition the FWC officer testified at trial, he does not measure fish in accordance with federal law. There was a document prepared by the FWC expert that said yes, fish shrink and if these had been measured correctly they averaged over 20 inches (offshore frozen). This was a smoke and mirror prosecution.

  5. I love this, Dave! Many congrats to you! We've come a long way from studying for the bar together! :)

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