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Supreme Court will determine supervisor role in workplace discrimination case

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently agreed to review a case to determine who can be considered a workplace supervisor when it comes to federal employment discrimination claims. The Dallas area is home to many federal workers who will be interested to learn how the court's ruling could impact future discrimination lawsuits.

The issue comes before the Supreme Court in an appeal of a workplace discrimination suit by an African-American catering worker who was employed by Ball State University. In her lawsuit, the employee alleged that one of her co-workers had physically assaulted her, threatened her and used racial epithets against her. The co-worker accused of discrimination was a salaried employee who essentially acted as a supervisor.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is illegal for a workplace supervisor to discriminate against any employee because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. But the Ball State University employee's discrimination claim was rejected by the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals, which stated her alleged harasser did not qualify as a supervisor. According to the appeals court, supervisors must be authorized to make decisions that affect the circumstances of employment, such as firing, hiring, making employee transfers and employee discipline.

The employee contested the appeals court's decision, arguing that other federal appeals courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission use a different standard for determining who is a supervisor for discrimination suit purposes. This standard requires a supervisor to be someone who has the power to direct the daily work activities of an employee.

President Obama's administration has filed a brief with the Supreme Court, supporting the employee's claim that the appeals court erred by not applying the standard used by the EEOC. However, the Justice Department has recommended that the Supreme Court deny the appeal because the employee's alleged harasser still would not qualify as a supervisor even under the EEOC's definition. Federal workers will have to wait until the Supreme Court begins reviewing the case in its October term to find out which argument will persuade the justices.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, "Supreme Court to Review Rules for Supervisor in Job-Bias Suits," Bob Drummond, June 25, 2012

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