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Facing the music

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of a Ball State University food service employee Monday, asking lawyers questions about country music vs. Wagner’s operas.

But the case wasn’t about music.

Racial harassment targeted at Maetta Vance, who worked for the university’s catering department, could lead to a legal precedent that would make it easier or more difficult for a worker to sue an employer.

Or maybe not.

And it all comes down to a simple question: Who’s a boss?

Federal courts of appeals have issued conflicting rulings on the question. The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, which hears appeals of Indiana federal court decisions, ruled that a supervisor is someone who can hire, fire, discipline, transfer, promote or demote a worker. But other appeals courts have broader definitions, ruling that a supervisor is someone who directs another’s activities.

The question is important because U.S. civil rights law allows a worker to seek damages resulting from harassment by a supervisor. But employers are not responsible for harassment by a mere co-worker.

Justice Elena Kagan, a former dean of Harvard Law School, made an observation countless university staff members understand. “Professors don’t have the ability to fire secretaries, but professors do have the ability to make secretarial lives living hells,” Kagan said.

Three of the justices followed a line of questioning that could have come directly from a script for “The Office.”

Chief Justice John Roberts asked the lawyers whether a worker who was allowed to choose the music playing in the office met the supervisor definition. He envisioned a scenario where an employee could say: “If you don’t date me, it’s going to be country music all day long.”

What about hard rock, Justice Antonin Scalia wondered. Or Wagner’s operas, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. chimed in.

The justices then asked somewhat more relevant questions about punishing a food service employee by making her chop onions all day.

Scenarios aside, the court took the case to settle the conflicting rulings by the courts of appeals. The Supreme Court’s ruling could set a precedent affecting businesses and the rights of workers not to face harassment and discrimination from their employers. No doubt, countless lawyers are also awaiting a decision that could make it easier – or much more difficult – to win damages from a business.

But the court might eventually agree with the attorney general’s office, whose solicitor general believed this is not the case to settle the lower courts’ conflict, advising that the co-worker who harassed Vance was not a supervisor under any definition of the word.

So workers may have little recourse if the person in charge of the music selects Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” – known as the Ring cycle.

The cycle is about 14 hours long.