Amid the sweeping, high-profile cases decided at the end of the Supreme Court's term on same sex marriage and the Voting Rights Act, one little-noticed case could dramatically change the way employees bring harassment cases against their employers.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Vance v. Ball State University does something subtle, but with far-reaching effects: It narrows the definition of the word "supervisor."
In this particular case, Maetta Vance was a dining hall worker at Ball State University in Indiana. Vance, an African-American, sued the university in 2006, alleging that a white supervisory colleague, Saundra Davis, launched a campaign of racial harassment and intimidation against her. Even though Davis didn't have power to fire her, Vance claimed, she did have the power to direct her activities on the job in the university's banquet and catering division.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion, "We hold that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a 'significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.'"
Justice Clarence Thomas, who was himself once accused of perpetrating sexual harassment, went even further in his solo concurrent opinion, saying that previous cases establishing sexual harassment standards were wrongly decided.
To the average worker today, though, the Court's restriction on defining a "supervisor" in this way doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Most supervisors have to appeal to higher-level executives or human resources departments to enact demotions or alter pay. And, worryingly, though Vance v. Ball State was about racial harassment, there's no reason it wouldn't apply to other kinds of protections provided for in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, including sexual harassment and harassment due to religion. This is a ruling likely to disproportionately affect women, since, according to data collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, just 16.3 percent of the more than 11,000 sexual harassment charges filed in fiscal year 2011 were from men.
"It makes a lot of sense for a large company to limit the number of people who actually have authority to take actions like firing and hiring and demoting," said Fatima Goss Graves, Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women's Law Center. But she pointed out that many companies create a structure where supervisors have a lot of leeway over a worker's environment, even if he or she doesn't have the power to hire and fire.
A supervisor could, for example, require the worker to put in longer hours, work outside or pick up unwanted duties on the job.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lays out in her dissent, this is the problem with narrowing the definition of "supervisor."
"Exposed to a fellow employee's harassment, one can walk away or tell the offender to 'buzz off,'" Ginsburg wrote. "A supervisor's slings and arrows, however, are not so easily avoided. An employee who confronts her harassing supervisor risks, for example, receiving an undesirable or unsafe work assignment or an unwanted transfer. She may be saddled with an excessive workload or with placement on a shift spanning hours disruptive of her family life. And she may be demoted or fired. Facing such dangers, she may be reluctant to blow the whistle on her superior, whose 'power and authority invests his or her harassing conduct with a particular threatening character.'"