Who is a supervisor for purposes of Title VII and the strict liability standards that can apply to harassment by supervisors? In Vance v. Ball State, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument on the issue, and will issue a ruling in 2013 and resolve conflicting lower court rulings on the issue. In a hostile work environment harassment claim, harassment by a supervisor results in imputed liability to the employer (subject to certain defenses), whereas harassment by non-supervisors results in employer liability only if the victim proves that the employer failed to take reasonable steps to stop the harassment.

The issue in Vance hinges on a split in the federal courts regarding a more narrow definition (i.e., power to hire, fire, demote, etc.) versus a more expansive definition (i.e., authority to direct and oversee the victim's daily work) of the term "supervisor." Courts such as the Seventh Circuit (at issue in this case) subscribe to the narrow definition, while courts such as the Ninth Circuit (which covers California) follow the expansive definition.

At oral argument, the Justices tested the limits of the expansive view, asking whether a senior employee threatening another employee to either date him or be forced to listen to country music all day would make him a supervisor since he would be affecting the daily activities of the employee. The Court's decision will hopefully set forth clear parameters for employers and employees alike.