Supreme Court makes it harder for workers to win discrimination lawsuits
The Supreme Court issued a pair of 5-to-4 rulings on workers' lawsuits. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissent in both cases calling for Congress to overturn the decisions by passing new legislation.
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The issue is important in Title VII litigation because if a supervisor is involved in acts of harassment or discrimination the entire company or organization can be held legally responsible. In contrast, illegal harassment or discrimination by a co-worker generally will not trigger liability for the entire company.Skip to next paragraph
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The question was whether “supervisors” should be limited to those with the power to hire, fire, promote, and demote, or whether the definition should be broadened to include anyone who supervises the day-to-day activities of a worker or group of workers.
In its decision on Monday, the high court established a narrow definition for who qualifies as a supervisor.
“We hold that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim,” Justice Alito wrote.
Such tangible employment actions include decisions that cause a significant change in employment status such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.
“We reject the nebulous definition of a ‘supervisor’ advocated in the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] Guidance and substantially adopted by several courts of appeals,” he said.
Analysts say the ruling will make it harder for plaintiffs to file and win such lawsuits.
The decision embraces the same narrow definition that has been enforced by three federal courts of appeal in Chicago, Boston, and St. Louis. It rejected a broader definition adopted by appeals courts in New York, Richmond, and San Francisco.
Something more than supervision is required to warrant vicarious liability by the company, Alito said in the majority decision.
“The ability to direct another employee’s tasks is simply not sufficient,” he said. “Employees with such powers are certainly capable of creating intolerable work environments, but so are many other co-workers.”
Alito said laws against negligence would protect workers from co-worker harassment. “Assuming that a harasser is not a supervisor, a plaintiff could still prevail by showing that his or her employer was negligent in failing to prevent harassment from taking place,” Alito wrote.
“Evidence that an employer did not monitor the workplace, failed to respond to complaints, or effectively discouraged complaints from being filed would be relevant,” he said.
The decision stems from a lawsuit brought on behalf of a food service worker, Maetta Vance, who filed a hostile environment and retaliation complaint against her employer, Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, for alleged harassing and discriminatory actions in the food service department.
Vance was the only African-American employee in the department. The person assigned to direct Vance’s work had once allegedly assaulted her and sometimes referred to her as “Buckwheat” and “Sambo.” Another employee of the department used the “N” word to refer to Vance and African-American students at the school. She also boasted of family connections to the Ku Klux Klan.
Vance lived and worked in a state of fear, according to court papers. She sought psychiatric care for anxiety and sleeplessness. She reported the situation to the department general manager, who promised to investigate. Little was done, according to Vance’s lawyers.
Vance sued. Ball State defended the suit by arguing that the two individuals accused of discrimination were Vance’s co-workers, and disputed that one was a “supervisor.”
A federal judge agreed and dismissed the lawsuit against the university. The Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, applying the circuit’s narrow definition that a “supervisor” is only someone empowered to hire, fire, or demote an employee.
In affirming that standard, Justice Alito said the narrow standard would be easier to administer than a broader, murkier standard.
“The interpretation of the concept of a supervisor that we adopt today is one that can be readily applied,” he said.
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg accused the majority of ignoring workplace realities. “Trumpeting the virtues of simplicity and administrability, the Court restricts supervisor status to those with power to take tangible employment actions,” she wrote.
“In so restricting the definition of supervisor, the Court once again shuts from sight the robust protection against workplace discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure,” she said.
The case was Maetta Vance v. Ball State University (11-556).