Maetta Vance began working in the banquet and catering department at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., in 1989. Vance worked for Ball State for 18 years and enjoyed two promotions and several pay raises based on her excellent performance. However, Vance was the only African-American in the department and was forced to tolerate racist name-calling by one of her immediate supervisors, Saundra Davis, who also threatened her. The university investigated Vance's claim, but because Vance and Davis provided conflicting accounts, it did not take any disciplinary action and instead required both women to undergo counseling.
Vance ultimately brought suit against the university for a hostile work environment based on racial harassment and retaliation. However, both a district court judge and the Seventh Circuit ruled that she had not proven her claims. The Seventh Circuit threw out Vance's case because it determined that since Davis did not have the authority to hire, fire, demote or discipline Vance, she did not qualify as Vance's "supervisor" under Title VII.
Vance appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, contending that the definition was too narrow. Vance argued that had the Seventh Circuit not applied its restrictive standard of "supervisor," Vance had presented a triable claim that Davis was authorized to direct her daily work activities. Davis' job description set forth her duty to "supervise" and to "direct" and "oversee" other employees.
The university urged the court not to hear the case, claiming that Vance could not show Davis was her "supervisor" under the EEOC's definition or any standard articulated by the federal courts. While the university did not squarely defend the Seventh Circuit's restrictive standard, it still argued that the definition proposed by Vance is too broad and an employee's job title and job description are irrelevant to whether he or she is a "supervisor" under Title VII.
The bright-line definition of "supervisor" adopted by the First, Seventh and Eighth circuits is too restrictive. It ignores the practical realities of many of today's workers who find themselves in situations similar to Monica's. In many workplaces, face-to-face contact is only available with immediate supervisors. Often times, workers do not know any of the higher-ups or HR professionals by face, name or even title. Workers run requests to leave a shift early or come in late by their immediate supervisors. They receive work materials, work orders and direction and feedback about work from their immediate supervisors. For all intents and purposes, immediate supervisors are the only people who actually influence the workers' conditions on the job and exercise day-to-day control and oversight of their work, and this is regardless of whether they have the actual authority to "hire, fire, promote, demote, transfer or discipline" workers.
The university's proposed definition of "supervisor," while more expansive than the First, Seventh and Eighth circuits, is equally untenable. Just as job descriptions provide notice to the applicants for a position as to which qualifications are required and what kinds of duties they will be expected to perform, they are also reliable indicators of the power and authority that the employer intends to vest and actually vests in the person who it ultimately hires for the position.
Where the Supreme Court will fall on this debate is unclear. A few members of the court, like Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, appeared to have no qualms with the Seventh Circuit's approach. At one point during oral argument, Roberts asked Vance's counsel whether an employee would qualify as a supervisor if that employee could decide what background music to play throughout the day and threatened to play music that another employee did not like to force that employee to go out on date. Vance's counsel responded that workplace dynamics would need to be evaluated on a "case-by-case basis." In asking this hypothetical, Roberts intended to highlight the simplicity of the Seventh Circuit's definition, a standard that in his estimation would prevent the courts from having to analyze the facts of particular workplaces.
As oral argument proceeded, it appeared that some members of the court were less interested in the simplicity of the Seventh Circuit's definition and more concerned with whether there was scant evidence of supervisor status under the facts of this particular case. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, for instance, posed questions to Vance's counsel, which would elicit specific evidence establishing a supervisory relationship between Davis and Vance.
Ultimately, the outcome of the Vance case may fall on the sufficiency of evidence. But it should not fall on a restrictive definition of supervisor that ignores the practical realities and power dynamics of most workplaces. Where an employer sanctions the authority of one employee over another by allowing that employee to direct the other employee's work or by not making the chain of command clear to its subordinates, it should be strictly liable for any harassment that results. Otherwise, countless women like Monica will continue to suffer at the hands of employees like Diego.
Monali Sheth is a staff attorney at Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco, a nonprofit legal organization that advocates on behalf of women and girls seeking equality in employment and education. She leads ERA's Marginalized Women Worker Campaign, representing low-wage and immigrant women workers in employment discrimination and related civil rights litigation.
This article originally appeared in The Recorder.