U.S. Supreme Court

Hated Music as Job Harassment? Justices Consider Hypo in Case on Who Qualifies as Supervisor


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In oral arguments on Monday, justices on the U.S. Supreme Court imagined the types of workplace punishment that could be inflicted by a senior employee who harasses a co-worker.

At issue is whether an employee who oversees the work of a harassment complainant in a Title VII case can be a considered a supervisor if he or she has no power to hire and fire. An employer is vicariously liable when a supervisor creates a hostile work environment, but courts disagree on what type of employee qualifies as a supervisor.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. started the music hypothetical, according to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post. What about a senior employee in the office with the power to control the music that is played? And what if the employee used that power to coerce a co-worker? “If you don’t date me,” he imagined the senior employee saying, “it’s going to be country music all day long.”

Other justices imagined other types of music as punishment. Justice Antonin Scalia suggested hard rock, while Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wondered about Wagner’s operas.

The plaintiff in the case is Ball State employee Maetta Vance, who claims a co-worker who had the authority to direct her work had slapped her, threatened her and used racial epithets. The case is Vance v. Ball State University.

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