By: Katie Wallat, FellowPosted on November 28, 2012

Monday morning I had the honor of observing the oral arguments for Vance v. Ball State at the United States Supreme Court. At issue in the case was how courts should define “supervisor” for the purposes of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination, including sexual harassment. This definition is important because it determines when an employer—in this case, Ball State University—will automatically be held liable for harassment perpetrated by an employee.

The plaintiff in the case is Ms. Vance, a catering assistant at Ball State University, who was the only African-American employee in her division. She alleged that she was threatened and called racially-motivated names by her immediate supervisors, and she suffered greatly because of it. However, Ms. Vance lost her case against the university when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that for the purposes of Title VII, supervisors only include those people who can hire and fire employees. The individuals who harassed her did not have this authority, though they did oversee her day-to-day work. This decision reflects a continuing split among Circuit Courts, as other courts have held that supervisors should also include day-to-day supervisors.

The National Women’s Law Center, along with nine other organizations, joined an amicus curiae brief prepared by the National Partnership for Women and Families. The brief argues against the more limited definition of supervisor, pointing out how pervasive harassment in the workplace still is today—the number of charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has grown over 25% over the past decade! The brief also argues that the Seventh Circuit’s ruling is at odds with Supreme Court precedent and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, ignores the realities of the workplace, and would undermine the underlying purpose of Title VII.

One of the arguments from that amicus brief was illustrated in a question by Justice Elena Kagan. She asked the Solicitor General about a hypothetical professor with a secretary. While the person who can hire and fire the secretary may be the head of the university’s secretarial services, it is the professor who has control over the secretary’s daily activities and can make his or her life “a living hell,” as Justice Kagan put it. Under the Seventh Circuit’s treatment of the case, the professor wouldn’t be treated as a supervisor, meaning that the university would not be vicariously liable for the professor’s harassment. This is just the kind of “truly perverse result,” as Ms. Vance’s lawyer called it, that shows how critical the outcome of this case will be for the daily lives of women and minorities.

The oral arguments also focused on questions about the factual record in the case; it seemed that many of the Justices were dissatisfied with the strength of the facts on both sides, and it remains unclear how it will come out. What we do know is that much is at stake for women and minorities in the result. We know that women file 84% of sexual harassment charges. And we know that the Supreme Court has the opportunity to clarify the protections offered under Title VII for women and minorities who face harassment on the job. We hope the ideals underpinning this important civil rights law are able to continue to protect those that need it most.