At the Supreme Court, even the most basic-sounding questions can produce 30 pages of opinion with copious footnotes. Take Monday's decision in Vance v. Ball State University, where the question that split the Court along familiar lines was this: Who in a workplace is a supervisor?
Conservatives think that "supervisor" means your boss, the person with the power to inflate or crush your career in his or her hands.
Unless you work in an organization with a pseudo-military structure (that is, with a clearly defined chain of command), chances are there are times when the lines of authority become blurred. There may be a supervisor who does the hiring, firing, and discipline in the office. But what about a higher-ranking coworker that sets the weekend schedule? What about the higher-up that you sometimes take assignments from, but don't explicitly work for?
In their classic 5-to-4 split, the Court's conservatives determined that for a person to sue an employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the offending party has to be a direct supervisor. And they define that pretty narrowly.
In the words of Justice's Samuel Alito's majority opinion, that's a person with the power 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."
The conservatives take "supervisor" to mean your boss, the person with the power to inflate or crush your career in his or her hands. Meanwhile, the liberals on the Court want more room for interpretation. They argue that it should be more focused on power relationships. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes:
... the appropriate question is: Has the employer given the alleged harasser authority to take tangible employment actions or to control the conditions under which subordinates do their daily work? If the answer to either inquiry is yes, vicarious liability is in order, for the superior-subordinate working arrangement facilitating the harassment is of the employer's making.
Basically, Ginsburg argues, if an employer puts a worker in a position of power, they take on the responsibility of that person's harassment and can be sued. Alito did something akin to rolling his eyes when Ginsburg read a summary of the opinion from the bench.
Although I couldn't find through a quick search if American offices are becoming more horizontal (please send me examples if you find them!), it's interesting how the conservatives on the Court fall back on a more antiquated idea of an office space, while the liberals want to be more encompassing of nontraditional environments. Supervisors, Ginsburg writes, often don't fit a particular mold, and vary intensely industry to industry. Is a mid-level employee who oversees interns but can't hire or fire them a supervisor? These "are matters not susceptible to mechanical rules and on-off switches," Ginsburg writes.
The Court's decision may make future cases more cut and dry, given the narrow definition of a supervisor. And it certainly protects business from litigation. The Vance decision was another big win for big business, as the Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying very successfully for pro-business rulings. The Vance decision, along with Monday's other rulings in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar and Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, each sided with Chamber of Commerce amicus briefs. This brings the whole term's wins for the chamber up to 13. It has lost only three.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.