Life in the real world vs. the Supreme Court

With all the big decisions at the end of this SC term, some pretty short ones kind of got lost in the shuffle.  I noticed this horrible, horrible decision when it came out, but did not get around to writing on it.  Now that the Atlantic’s Kay Steiger has, I’ll piggyback on that.

Short version: the Supreme Court’s conservatives decidedly to single-handedly change the word “supervisor” as relating to employment law to refer narrowly to someone who can hire, fire, or promote you.  Presumably, anyone who has ever worked in a real job recognized how absolutely absurd this is (as does the liberal minority).  Heck, I’m a tenured professor who basically cannot be fired and can’t get promoted any further, and the Director of our School of Public and International Affairs is most definitely my “supervisor”  who could try and make my life miserable in all sorts of ways (class assignments, committee assignments, office space and physical resources, employee evaluations) if he were to so choose.  The fact that he cannot actually “fire” me would mean little if he wanted to illegally punish me in the workplace.  Yet, the conservative majority is to blind to see that?  This is honestly one of those face-palm decisions (except for the fact that if it is bad for workers, you can be pretty sure the conservatives are for it.  Seriously).  Steiger:

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Vance v. Ball State University does something subtle, but with far-reaching effects: It narrows the definition of the word “supervisor.”

In this particular case, Maetta Vance was a dining hall worker at Ball State University in Indiana. Vance, an African-American, sued the university in 2006, alleging that a white supervisory colleague, Saundra Davis, launched a campaign of racial harassment and intimidation against her. Even though Davis didn’t have power to fire her, Vance claimed, she did have the power to direct her activities on the job in the university’s banquet and catering division.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion, “We hold that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a ‘significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.'” …

To the average worker today, though, the Court’s restriction on defining a “supervisor” in this way doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Most supervisors have to appeal to higher-level executives or human resources departments to enact demotions or alter pay. And, worryingly, though Vance v. Ball State was about racial harassment, there’s no reason it wouldn’t apply to other kinds of protections provided for in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, including sexual harassment and harassment due to religion…

“It makes a lot of sense for a large company to limit the number of people who actually have authority to take actions like firing and hiring and demoting,” said Fatima Goss Graves, Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center. But she pointed out that many companies create a structure where supervisors have a lot of leeway over a worker’s environment, even if he or she doesn’t have the power to hire and fire.

A supervisor could, for example, require the worker to put in longer hours, work outside or pick up unwanted duties on the job.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lays out in her dissent, this is the problem with narrowing the definition of “supervisor.”

“Exposed to a fellow employee’s harassment, one can walk away or tell the offender to ‘buzz off,'” Ginsburg wrote. “A supervisor’s slings and arrows, however, are not so easily avoided. An employee who confronts her harassing supervisor risks, for example, receiving an undesirable or unsafe work assignment or an unwanted transfer. She may be saddled with an excessive workload or with placement on a shift spanning hours disruptive of her family life. And she may be demoted or fired. Facing such dangers, she may be reluctant to blow the whistle on her superior, whose ‘power and authority invests his or her harassing conduct with a particular threatening character.'”

The good news is that this is just the SC’s interpretaion of the law, not the Constitution.  Therefore, Congress can simply make itself more clear:

Congress could do the same with Vance v. Ball State, amending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — which turns 50 next year — to say that a supervisor is defined as someone with authority over an employee’s actions on the job, regardless of his or her power over the employee’s pay or employment status.

The bad news?  Ummm, I personally cannot imagine the Republicans in the House going along with this obvious and common-sense step.  The man: 1; workers 0.  On the bright side, I’ll be using this as an example in my classes of 1) how the Supreme Court is able to interpret the statutory language of laws and how Congress can respond; and 2) how the Supreme Court can make decisions that are absurdly wrong-headed on their face.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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