WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court justices struggled with the issue of who qualifies as a supervisor in the workplace, an important question when employees sue and claim that they were victims of harassment based on their race or sex.
Is a supervisor a high-level boss with the power to hire and fire workers, or can a supervisor also be a mid-level employee who oversees the daily work of several others?
Federal civil rights law makes it illegal for employers, acting through their agents — essentially, supervisors — to discriminate against employees because of their race, religion, sex or age.
But judges have been split on whether mid-level employees count as supervisors if they subject other workers to on-the-job harassment.
The justices heard the case of Maetta Vance, a black food-service worker at Ball State University in Indiana who claimed that Saundra Davis, a white woman who served as a catering specialist, had slapped her and referred to her as "Sambo" and "Buckwheat."
Vance sued the university for racial harassment, but lost before a federal judge and the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
The appeals court opinion by Judge Diane Wood said the catering specialist was not Vance's supervisor because she had no power to fire, demote or discipline her. The judges also said the university had responded to some of Vance's complaints and therefore a civil verdict against the university was not justified.
An Obama administration lawyer urged the court to adopt a broader standard and rule that supervisors are those who "control the daily work activities" of an employee.
The conservative justices worried aloud about an open-ended standard that would allow lawsuits against companies or agencies based on the unpleasant acts of mid-level employees.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked about subjecting co-workers to country music all day long. Suppose a senior employee says to a co-worker, "I know you don't like country music. If you don't date me, it's going to be country music all day long," he said.
As if to make the example more distressing, Justice Antonin Scalia interjected: Make it "hard rock instead."
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he too was not convinced that the white catering specialist had much power over Vance. "What was the most unpleasant thing that Davis could have assigned [Vance] to do? Chopping onions all day, every day?"
Daniel Ortiz, a University of Virginia professor representing Vance, said she and other complaining employees would always have to prove they were victims of severe harassment, and being forced to listen to country music would not qualify.
But he argued the court should allow discrimination claims if a harasser "can instill fear in the victim," even if such a mid-level supervisor does not hire and fire employees.
Justice Elena Kagan, relying on her background in academia, asked about a university example. What about the professor who makes the life of his secretary "a living hell," she asked. Formerly the dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan noted that professors usually have no power to hire or fire secretaries, even though they can make their work lives miserable.
But throughout the argument, doubts were voiced about Vance's claim of discrimination. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Vance appeared to have a weak case, even if the catering specialist were deemed to be her supervisor. The Obama administration also stopped short of saying Vance should win her case.
By the end of oral arguments, the justices sounded unsure whether they should use Vance's case to make a major ruling on workplace harassment laws.