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Who’s the Boss: The Supreme Court Considers the Meaning of “Supervisor”

What’s in a title? When it comes to employment discrimination cases, quite a lot. Under federal discrimination laws, employees can usually collect damages automatically when a supervisor or manager is involved in harassment or discriminatory behavior.

This week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that deals with a deceptively simple question: who counts as a supervisor? The appeal comes in a race discrimination case in which an employee claimed that a senior co-worker harassed her on the basis of race.

The plaintiff, the only black employee at an Indiana university’s catering department, claimed that a senior employee taunted and threatened her at work. Under the law applying to that state, “supervisor” has a narrow definition. To be a supervisor, another employee must “have the power to hire, fire or discipline.”

This is a relatively narrow standard compared to the rest of the country and it meant that this worker’s case could not proceed. Because the other employee did not have the power to do any of those things, she did not count as a supervisor.

Interestingly, both sides agreed that the “hire, fire, discipline” standard is too narrow. One justice seemed to agree – she compared the case to a professor’s administrative assistant. Although most professors do not have the power to fire their assistants, they can “subject that secretary to living hell.”

Hopefully the Supreme Court will expand this definition – in many workplaces, the simple reality is that many people can commit horribly discriminatory acts without having the power to fire their victim. It seems reasonable to think that a broader definition of “supervisor” would do more to accomplish the goals of anti-discrimination laws.

Source: The New York Times, “Justices Consider Definition of Supervisor in Job Discrimination Case,” Adam Liptak, Nov. 26, 2012

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