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Definition of supervisor is crucial in workplace harassment cases

What, exactly, makes a supervisor? This is probably not something many Houston residents consider on a day-to-day basis, even when they are at work. But it is particularly important for people who have endured racial or sexual harassment on the job, because it can affect the outcome of their civil case.

A specific case has brought the definition question all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A woman says she was racially harassed by a supervisor; but when she sued, an appellate court threw her case about because the alleged offender did not have the ability "to hire, fire, demote or discipline" the victim, therefore disqualifying her as a "supervisor."

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on this matter, setting forth a precedent for what is (or is not) a supervisor in the workplace. While it may sound simple, there are some delicate issues to consider.

Does the job description play a part in assigning someone duties becoming of a "supervisor"? What if the description does not mention the "fire-hire-demote-discipline" trope, but in reality the person has that ability in their workplace? What if the supervisor in question only meets certain criteria as a "supervisor"?

When it comes to a workplace harassment lawsuit, there are varying rules depending on whether the harasser is a supervisor or just a co-worker. When a supervisor harasses an employee, usually the company is automatically liable for the damages; harassment from a co-worker, meanwhile, places a greater burden of proof on the plaintiff, as they must show that the company failed to follow up with the harassment complaint.

The definition of the harasser can also affect the size of the potential award granted to a plaintiff, even though the harassment is just as embarrassing and demeaning for the victim regardless of the defendant's work title.

Source: NPR, "Supreme Court To Look At Who Is A 'Supervisor' In Harassment Cases," Nina Totenberg, Nov. 26, 2012

  • To learn more about the legal options victims of workplace harassment or discrimination have, please visit our Houston sexual harassment page.

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