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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments In Two Employment Law Cases

The 2012-2013 term of the United States Supreme Court is currently in session, and the High Court recently heard oral arguments for two cases involving employment law issues.

The first case, Vance v. Ball State University, deals with the issue of what type of authority must an employee possess to constitute a “supervisor” for purposes of imposing strict liability on an employer for the actions of its supervisors, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The specific question in this case is whether an employer is strictly liable under Title VII for harassment by (a) employees who have authority to oversee and direct the work of the alleged victim, or (b) only those who have the authority to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” the alleged victim.

This issue is significant, because of the landmark cases of Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inv. v. Ellerth, where the Supreme Court ruled that an employer is vicariously liable for severe or pervasive workplace harassment committed by a supervisor of the victim.

Currently, the different federal circuit are split on this issue.  The Second, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits have adopted a broader approach, and ruled that strict liability under Title VII extends to employees who have the authority to direct and oversee their victim’s daily work.  Additionally, the EEOC Guidelines also set forth a broader definition of “supervisor” as somebody who has the authority to direct employees’ daily work activities.  On the other hand, the First, Third, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits have adopted a narrower approach, and ruled that strict liability applies only for supervisors who have authority to “hire, fire, demote, promoted, transfer, or discipline” the alleged victim.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for this case on November 26, 2012.

The second case, Genesis Health Care Corp. v. Symczyk, deals with the issue of whether a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) becomes moot when the lone plaintiff receives an offer of judgment from the employer that fully satisfies the FLSA claim.

In this case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the employer’s offer of judgment did not render moot a plaintiff’s claim under the FLSA.  The court reasoned that it did not want to enable employers to “pick off” individually-named plaintiffs in order to avoid FLSA collective action claims.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for this case on December 3, 2012.