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Supreme Court will define the meaning of a 'supervisor'

Many lawyers know that an entire case can turn on a simple word. Sometimes, the interpretation of phrase can greatly influence how a specific law is interpreted. In recent news, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide the following issue, which concerns an issue of interpretation: Should employers be liable for their supervisors' harassment only when the supervisor oversees the employee, or must the supervisor have the authority to hire and fire the employee? All of this depends on one's definition of "supervisor."

The case at issue concerns whether an Indiana-based University should be held liable for the supposed racial harassment experienced by an employee. She was the sole African American employee in its catering department.

The plaintiff accused supervisors and co-workers of harassment. A lower court dismissed the case and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling last summer. According to the holding, the woman had not established a basis for employer liability on the hostile work environment claim.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has recently accepted the case. In former cases, the high court held that an employer is vicariously liable for severe workplace harassment by a victim's supervisor. However, courts have been split on the definition of "supervisor."

A couple of appellate courts have held that supervisors are those with power to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline" an employee. However, other courts have defined supervisors as those who only oversee the employee's daily responsibilities.

This case is an example of how significant definitions can be in the context of interpreting specific employment law. In this particular case, the Supreme Court's chosen definition of "supervisor" will inevitably influence the outcome of this case. It will also provide significant guidance for future court rulings.

Source: Business Insurance, "Supreme Court to clarify what constitutes a supervisor in harassment cases," Judy Greenwald, June 26, 2012

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