Today, the Supreme Court is hearing a case that may have implications for workers' future ability to sue their employers' for on-the-job sexual harassment. At issue is what constitutes a "supervisor" in the workplace — and it's more complicated than you might think.
The case before the Justices concerns former Ball State University employee Maetta Vance, who says that as the only black employee of her department, she was was subjected to racist taunts by a group of her white coworkers. The Regina George of that group was a woman named Saundra Davis, who Vance says gave her orders and supervised her work even though she was not an official supervisor as designated by the university's hierarchy.
Here's where it gets tricky — in the past, courts have ruled that if an employee is being harassed by their supervisor, the employer is liable for harassment. But if the harasser is at the same hierarchical level as the victim, the employer can't be held responsible for any shenanigans that ensued unless they knew about the harassment and did nothing about it. Vance's lawyers asserted that Davis was Vance's supervisor on the grounds that Davis bossed Vance around and Vance listened, but a district court in Indiana disagreed, dismissing the case before it even went to trial on the grounds that there wasn't enough evidence that Davis was in charge of Vance.
According to Salon, courts haven't yet agreed on what, exactly, constitutes a "supervisor" in the legal sense, and as a result, MASS LEGAL CONFUSION.
As such, no consensus has been reached throughout the federal appeals courts over exactly who is a supervisor. Three circuits say supervisors are those with the power to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline. Three other circuits have adopted a broader standard, one that also includes employees who direct and oversee a colleague's daily work.
Get it? Basically the judicial equivalent of a madcap chase scene that knocks over a cart full of watermelons before almost shattering a large sheet of glass being moved across the street by two guys. But way less exciting.
So if the Court agrees with Vance and adopts the more inclusive definition of "supervisor" to include "controlling, bossy coworkers who follow you around and make sure you're doing your job even though you don't actually technically report to them," employers will be financially on the hook for all sorts of employee-on-employee harassment, which means that your sexual harassment training videos are about to get much, much longer and probably much less hilarious because you won't be able to fake sexually harass your coworker/friends afterward without getting reprimanded.
But if the Court disagrees with Vance, it might be more difficult for future victims of on-the-job sexual harassment to recover any damages from their employers.
Famously mute Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was still definitely Anita Hill's supervisor, under either definition.