Walter Olson has an article on three recent 5-4 decisions where we narrowly avoided Supreme Court rulings that would have further separated liability as a business owner from actual bad actions. This one in particular resonates with me:
Vance raised the question of who counts as a “supervisor” for purposes of harassment liability. Under existing Court precedent, employers are more or less automatically liable when a “supervisor” engages in harassment. When it’s a co-worker, they are still frequently liable – e.g., if they have received a complaint about it but not fixed things, or if they have negligently allowed the situation to develop – but liability isn’t as close to automatic. As all Justices recognized, however, the old model of a workplace with a military-like chain of command is fast giving way to newer models in which it is extremely hard to tell who is supervising whom, and in particular work orders (“Here, do this for me.”) can issue in multiple directions, not just from “up” to “down.” The four liberal justices were happy to blur the lines by saying that the more people are doing supervisor-like things, the more employees’ misconduct will be imputed automatically to the employer with no chance for it to raise counterarguments that it had acted properly. The majority led by Justice Alito more reasonably recognized that the ability to take tangible employment actions against a co-worker is a better test of “supervisor” than the ability to ask them to undertake some work responsibility.
Last year I got sucked into a lawsuit where an ex-employee, after her termination, sued our company for allegedly racist remarks another employee made about her husband. The lawsuit was the first we ever heard about the alleged incident -- it was never reported to me or any other manager or employee, it was behavior that was banned by our policies and training, and we never (obviously) had a chance to make any corrections. The litigant tried to argue that the person who made the alleged remarks was "supervisory" because she had sometimes been asked to draft a shift schedule for the manager.
We eventually had this dismissed, but it cost us $25,000 in legal fees to make it go away. It was particularly frustrating given that if this had ever been raised as an issue to me, it would have been investigated and heads would have rolled if necessary. This whole notion of having liability even when operating to the highest standards is just terrifying. And four Supreme Court justices tried to make all this irrelevant, essentially linking my liability to the standards and intelligence of whoever is my weakest employee.