The United States Supreme Court today ruled on who is a supervisor for purposes of federal civil rights laws. The Court had previously held that an employer is strictly liable for the harassing acts of its supervisors. However, an employer is liable for the acts of the complainant's co-workers only if the employer was negligent (knew or should have known of the harassing acts).
In Vance v. Ball State University, Case No. 11-556, the plaintiff complained that a fellow worker glared at her, smiled at her (oh, how evil!), and banged pots and pans around her in the kitchen where they worked. while the parties disputed the co-worker's duties, they agreed she did not have the power to hire or fire Vance or others. Vance, and the EEOC, nevertheless contended that the co-worker's level of control made her a supervisor giving rise to the employer's strict liability.
A sharply divided Supreme Court held that a worker is not a supervisor unless he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. The Court expressly rejected the EEOC's "murky" and "open-ended" test that creates ambiguity, and thus litigation. It provided a clearer test that better defines when an employer can be held liable.
This is exactly what the law needs -- clarity. Otherwise, employers are held hostage in these cases where the employee's threat of attorneys' fees often compel an employer to capitulate. In the name of political correctness, cases become means of extortion. Think of it if Vance prevailed against her employer because a worker smiled at her. Justice prevailed in this case.