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Companies in Tennessee and around the country with 15 or more workers must abide by the requirements of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, there has been legal confusion regarding whether senior executives should be classed as employers or workers. While workers are protected by Title VII of the landmark federal law, employers are not. The issue was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2003 case involving a claim made under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The test the justices used to decide the matter is now generally followed by courts when deciding federal workplace discrimination cases.

The justices were primarily concerned with how much control the complainant in the case had over her compensation and working conditions, and they turned to guidelines provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for guidance. Factors that should be considered according to the EEOC include hiring and firing authorization, supervision levels, corporate hierarchies, profit-sharing and employment contracts or other work-related documentation. The EEOC says that the amount of influence an individual has within a company should also be taken into consideration.

The Supreme Court ruled that judges should view these factors as a whole rather than focusing on one aspect of an employment situation. The justices pointed out that a lofty title alone is not enough to turn an employee into an employer. While the lines separating workers from employers may sometimes be clear in rigidly structured corporations, they can be vague and undefined in partnership arrangements.

Attorneys with a background in workplace discrimination cases may be able to study the working situations of their clients to predict how their cases will be interpreted by the courts. Lawyers could also urge employers to avoid legal costs, negative publicity and possible civil sanctions by settling these claims discretely and quickly.