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Who is liable for damages if an employee is harassed at work?

A view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington DC.
A view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington DC.
Alex Brandon/AP

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This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will evaluate workplace harassment in the context of supervision and determine who qualifies as a supervisor. The specific case before the court began with Maetta Vance, who was allegedly racially targeted by one of her immediate “supervisors,” Sandra Davis.

The question of supervision is an important one because it frequently determines liability. In cases where an employee is harassed by a supervisor, the employer is automatically responsible for damages, while if the perpetrator is a co-worker, the victim has to prove that the employer was negligent in following up on complaints.

What makes someone a supervisor? Is it, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states, anyone with the authority to manage daily work activities? Is it someone with hiring and firing power? Should employers be responsible for all workplace harassment, or just that carried out by their management?


Greg Stohr, Bloomberg News Supreme Court reporter

Anne K. Richardson, Partner, Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick law firm in Pasadena; Richardson specializes in employment and civil rights cases.