Fourteen years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers can be liable for workplace harassment by supervisors they employ. Now, a harassment case brought by a black catering assistant named Maetta Vance against Ball State University has the court engaged in the delicate task of deciding exactly who qualifies as a supervisor.
Must it be someone who has “the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the victim”? That was the opinion of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in dismissing Vance’s case. Three federal appeals courts have also adopted that standard.
But three other appeals courts have said mere day-to-day oversight is enough to result in liability. A definition proposed by the Equal Opportunity Commission resembles this less strict interpretation.
Where to draw the line?
It seems like a clear case of splitting hairs, doesn’t it? Even if those providing “day-to-day oversight” don’t have the direct ability to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline someone, they have the ability through reports and reviews to influence those who do. And short of that, as justices from across the political spectrum noted, they have the power to make employees’ work lives so miserable they have no choice but to quit, which could be considered the equivalent of firing.
Of course the whole issue of workplace harassment is so full of vague generalities and subjective perspectives that it remains problematic as a matter of law and justice. Just listen to Vance’s lawyer, Daniel Ortiz, explaining that, because “the standard is not that precise,” courts need to use “a sliding scale of negligence” to review harassment claims. That’s not exactly the bright line of clarity the law should have, is it?
So when we confront the question of who’s really in charge, there’s only one correct answer, isn’t there? It’s the court, of course, which now has firm control of the workplace – and everything else, come to think of it.
The legislative study committee, looking into ways to improve Indiana’s Department of Childhood Services, has made a common-sense recommendation to give local agencies more authority to decide which abuse and neglect cases to look into. There would still be a central collection point where complaints would be gathered, but they would be sent to local agencies, which would have the power to make the decision.
What’s true of spending decisions by government is true of other kinds of decisions by agencies providing service: The local authorities have the most knowledge with which to make the best decisions.