Supervise this

By Denis Storey


My favorite branch of government’s always been the judicial. (And, yeah, I’m that much of political geek that I have a favorite branch of government.)

In fact, I had every intention of going on to law school after getting my journalism degree, but I just couldn’t wait to get out into the real world. (Remember, this was back in the early 90s when there were jobs for college grads.)

So it’s a big week for me. The U.S. Supreme Court’s all over workplace issues this week, addressing no less than three separate cases.

The big headline grabber of course was the Court’s decision Monday to kick back the Liberty University v. Geithner case to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that refused to consider it earlier, essentially resurrecting the last remaining major court challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Remember, this is the private university lawsuit that claims Obamacare’s mandates—both the individual’s to buy health insurance and the employer’s to offer it—violates its religious freedom.

I don’t see this going anywhere, but it’s an interesting decision in that the justices essentially decided the lower court didn’t really give this suit a fair shake. More on this tomorrow.

In other news, the court heard oral arguments Monday in Vance v. Ball State University, the latest case to wrestle with the workplace definition of a supervisor for the sake of discrimination or harassment claims, something the Court has been struggling with since 1998. This, of course, goes to the heart of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, where it explicitly forbids employers from sexual or racial discrimination, whether directly or through “agents.” In this particular case, an African-American university kitchen employee claims her co-workers—whom she regarded as supervisors – made repeated racial references to her, to put it mildly.

The courts’ traditionally narrow definition of a supervisor has been “anyone with the ability to hire, fire, discipline, promote or transfer another worker.” Vance argues in this case, though, that these particular co-workers controlled her “day-to-day activities” thus making them de facto supervisors. Lower courts have already disregarded this argument.

This obviously can open up a whole new Pandora’s Box of employer liability, which remains intriguing since the entire case rests on the almost Clintonesque definition of a single word.

Check out the transcript of the day’s arguments here.

And, finally, we have a rather dense-looking case, U.S. Airways, Inc. v. McCutchen that seeks to spell out the exact nature of “appropriate equitable relief” under the terms of an ERISA-covered benefit plan. Specifically: An employee gets hurt on the job. His employer’s plan covers his medical bills. Then said employee sues for and wins damages against the third-party deemed responsible for his injury. Is that employee then compelled to reimburse the employer for what was paid for his injury already out of the plan, as defined as “appropriate equitable relief” for the plan administrator? And where do attorney’s fees fall in this equation?

This case, too, despite clearly being a sleeper as far as mainstream media outlets are concerned, could have wide-ranging implications. Just when you thought you didn’t have enough to keep track of at the end of the year.

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