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US Supreme Court to decide on issue of 'supervisor' definition

Readers of our blog may remember our October 17 article in which we discussed an issue that had appellate courts across the nation in direct opposition of each other. The issue revolved around the question of who qualifies as a supervisor especially when it comes to the issue of harassment in the workplace.

Back in October, it was unclear at the time whether the U.S. Supreme Court was going to step in on the matter or not, though many argued that it was only a matter of time before a decisive ruling was made in order to get every state on the same page when it came to employment law.

Recently, the Supreme Court has announced that they will finally be deciding on the issue. An answer from the court could greatly restrict employer liability in racial and sexual harassment cases in the future. Or, as some have pointed out, lead to frivolous yet messy litigation.

At present time, many states have adopted a broader definition of the term "supervisor" to mean any individual who has authority to direct daily work activities-like making working assignments and schedules-or to recommend employment actions. But as some have pointed out, there are plenty of situations where people have power over other employees even though they do not necessarily have the title of supervisor.

As a writer for National Public Radio so eloquently pointed out, "The definition [of supervisor] matters because when a supervisor harasses a worker, the employer is automatically liable for damages in most cases; the supervisor is viewed as an agent of the employer. On the other hand, if the harasser is a mere co-worker, the victim, in order to prevail, has to show that the employer was negligent in following up on complaints."

It is the court's hope that they will have a decision on the matter by the beginning of 2013.

Source:, "Supreme Court to Look at Who is a 'Supervisor' in Harassment Cases," Nina Totenberg, Nov. 26, 2012

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