About the Firm
Attorney Brian H. Alligood provides top quality, aggressive legal representation to individuals and businesses throughout North Carolina. Mr. Alligood regularly represents parties in disputes arising from all aspects of the employer-employee relationship. Employment issues frequently litigated include claims of discriminatory hiring and employment practices, sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful discharge, wage and hour violations, breach of contract and no-compete covenants, and employee benefits litigation. In addition to confronting claims of traditional employment discrimination, Mr. Alligood represents parties with respect to statutory rights and obligations imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.
Mr. Alligood regularly appears in all North Carolina state and federal courts and administrative agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the North Carolina Department of Labor, and the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs (OFCCP).
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
United States Supreme Court Ponders Definition of “Supervisor” in Harassment Case
On November 26, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in the employment law case of Vance v. Ball State University. One issue in the case is whether the harasser is a “supervisor” such that the employer can be held vicariously liable for her actions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that allows employees to sue for work place harassment.
Many lower courts have defined “supervisor” narrowly as someone with the power to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline" employees. Other courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have adopted a broader definition, finding that someone who directs other employees’ daily work activities is a supervisor. The distinction is important in employment discrimination matters. If a supervisor is harassing an employee, the employer can be held liable. On the other hand, if a mere co-worker harasses another co-worker, the employer is liable only if it knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment and did nothing to stop it.
The Vance case arises from a “hostile work environment” among the catering staff at Ball State University. Maetta Vance, an African American female, alleged that she was subjected to racial hostility from her white co-worker, Saundra Davis. Ms. Davis had some control over Ms. Vance’s daily work schedule, but Ms. Davis had no authority to fire her. After years of alleged antagonism, Ms. Vance filed a lawsuit against the university.
In Vance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision to throw out Ms. Vance’s lawsuit. In doing so, the 7th Circuit endorsed the narrow definition and affirmed the trial court’s decision that since Ms. Davis could not fire Ms. Vance, she was not a “supervisor” and the university could not be held vicariously liable for her actions.
According to several news sources, the Court hinted during oral arguments that Vance ultimately may not be the best case for resolving the question of who is a supervisor because of the disputed facts of the case. However, if and/or when the Court does ultimately decide the issue, its holding is likely to have a significant impact on North Carolina employment law, as the Court’s decision could greatly expand or restrict the ability of employees to bring harassment complaints against co-workers that do not meet the narrow definition of “supervisor.”
If you are confronting issues of work place harassment, it is important to speak with experienced North Carolina employment lawyers, as employment discrimination law raises many complex legal questions shaped by an evolving body of case law. Please feel free to contact me directly at (336) 333-6375 to discuss this Supreme Court activity or North Carolina employment law matters. For more information about my Greensboro law firm of Sharpless & Stavola, please visit our website at www.sharpless-stavola.com.