The US Supreme Court turned to workplace harassment on Monday, taking up the issue of whether an employer is responsible if the alleged tormentor is not strictly a boss.
The nine-member panel pondered how best to define "supervisor" -- as those few in a company who can hire and fire, or more widely, as those who oversee others on a daily basis.
Under American law, an employer is held accountable if a supervisor torments a subordinate but cannot be legally pursued if the harassment takes places between two employees of the same rank unless the employer is shown to be "negligent" and turned a blind eye to the goings-on.
To answer the question, the country's top court examined a case of racial harassment in which the harassment victim was an African American employee of Ball State University, an institution of higher learning in the state of Indiana.
Maretta Vance worked in the university's food service where she claims she was harassed by another employee, a white woman named Saundra Davis, who insulted her with references to the white supremacist organization Ku Klux Klan.
A Chicago court of appeals court ruled in June 2011 that the university could not be held accountable. It said negligence could not be proven and that Davis was not the supervisor of the plaintiff because she did not have the power to hire or fire her.
"It is clear that Ms Davis was not qualified as a supervisor," Gregory Garre, a lawyer for the university, told the panel.
But Daniel Ortiz, a lawyer for Vance, countered that "Davis told her what to do and what not to do ... Davis gave orders in the kitchen."
Justice Samuel Alito asked what the most unpleasant thing was that Davis could have assigned Vance to do.
"Could it be chopping onions all day, every day?" he asked.
"Certainly," Ortiz answered, adding that cleaning the toilets was also on the list of unpleasant tasks.
Chief justice John Roberts asked if an employee tasked with choosing music for his workplace could be considered a supervisor if he told another employee: "if you don't date me, it's going to be country music all day long... that affects the daily activities of that other employee."
To that, Alito said: "Isn't the authority to decide who cleans the toilets the same as the authority to decide what the music is going to be?"
The court is expected to issue its ruling in 2013. The decision could set a precedent on employer responsibility for other harassment cases.