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Supreme Court considers 'who is a supervisor' in employment cases

When it comes to employment law, the exact company title and practical position of the players in any given case make a difference in the case's ultimate outcome. For example, some laws protecting workers from sexual harassment and discrimination of all kinds only apply when a direct supervisor is committing the offending acts. The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case centering on the question "Who is a supervisor" for the purposes of employment law cases.

The Court has previously tried to clarify its position on this matter, but lower courts continue to disagree on what the Court's previous rulings ultimately mean. In an effort to settle these inconsistent interpretations, the Court is considering the case of a kitchen worker who allegedly suffered serious forms of racial discrimination at the hands of individuals she considered to be her supervisors.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the employee could not sue for racial discrimination, essentially because her "supervisor" only directed her day-to-day tasks but did not have explicit authority to conduct a job action such as hiring her or firing her. As such, this person did not explicitly meet the criteria laid out in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for a supervisor, according to the court.

This particular interpretation is troubling, as it gives companies the ability to discriminate against employees through the bottom rungs of the managerial chains, as long as someone higher ranking does the hiring and firing. The practical implications of the Supreme Court upholding the Seventh Circuit's interpretation could be potentially devastating to employees. As a result, this case will undoubtedly be closely watched.

Source:, "Argument preview: Who is a supervisor?" Lyle Denniston, Nov. 21, 2012

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