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SCOTUS ruling limits worker harassment claims

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A closely decided Supreme Court of the United States opinion in an Indiana case will restrict American workers’ ability to bring harassment claims against day-to-day supervisors who don’t have hiring and firing authority over the employee, legal scholars say.

U.S. justices on June 24 decided 5-4 against the plaintiff in Maetta Vance v. Ball State University, et al., 11-556. Maetta Vance, an African-American woman who worked for the university’s dining services, claimed co-worker Saundra Davis, who directed her daily work, created a hostile workplace. Vance filed a Title VII harassment complaint against Ball State with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

shockley Shockley

The majority affirmed the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the District Court’s order of summary judgment in favor of Ball State. The Supreme Court held that because Davis couldn’t make “tangible employment decisions” regarding Vance, Davis was not a supervisor for purposes of Title VII.

Dissenting for the court’s liberal wing, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court ignored workplace realities and denied workers’ legitimate claims for redress over harassment. Ginsburg cataloged numerous cases in which harassment was evident, but an employer would be outside the scope of vicarious liability under the new interpretation.

Scott Shockley, a partner at DeFur Voran LLP in Muncie who represented Ball State, noted the school had been vindicated after it took corrective action following Vance’s complaint. Shockley applauded the ruling, though, saying it brings clarity to divided interpretations among federal circuits of who is a “supervisor” under Title VII.

“The law in the 7th Circuit and, thus, in Indiana has been clear for quite some time,” Shockley said. “There’s always been a very bright-line distinction between who is and who isn’t a supervisor,” that being the “tangible employment decisions” standard.

Shockley said the ruling gives uniform guidance to the EEOC. “Clarity and the administration of potential rules, that’s a significant result of this opinion,” he said.

bodensteiner Bodensteiner

Valparaiso University Law School Interim Dean Ivan Bodensteiner agreed the EEOC will take note of the opinion. “The court seems very unwilling to give deference to the EEOC’s administration of these laws,” said Bodensteiner, who teaches and writes on civil rights legislation and litigation.

“This is another pro-business decision out of this court, and it makes it more difficult to address harassment in the workplace,” he said. “It makes it less likely such cases will get to the jury, and it puts another premium on early resolution of theses cases” through summary judgment.

Bodensteiner said the decision is consistent with narrow opinions over the past 15 years or so that “represent sort of a distrust of the jury system.”

Valparaiso law professor Rosalie Berger Levinson noted the ruling left open recourse for employees claiming harassment at the hands of a supervisor who doesn’t make tangible employment decisions. But the bar is much higher: The claimant must prove the employer was negligent.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Deborah Widiss doubts the ruling will bring much clarity to workplace harassment claims for the reasons Ginsburg noted in the dissent, such as a supervisor who makes tangible employment decisions by relying on reports from a supervisor lacking that authority.

“In many cases, that kind of delegation does happen,” Widiss said. “In many places, that automatically leads to the same kind of messy line-drawing questions. The reality of the workplace is that this is kind of a gray area, and I don’t think the majority opinion totally eliminates the fuzziness there.”

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Professors predicted the ruling could chill or undermine workplace harassment claims, particularly when coupled with another 5-4 SCOTUS opinion handed down the same day as Vance. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 12-484, the court held that retaliation claims under Title VII must be proved by but-for causation – that the adverse employment action would not have been taken but for the complaint by the employee.

“The combination of these two decisions makes it risky for people who are victims of harassment” to bring Title VII claims, Widiss said. “They should reasonably feel nervous.”

Bodensteiner feared that Vance could have dire consequences in some workplaces. “There are a lot of people in employment situations who can make life miserable,” he said. He’s concerned the opinion could give “more people sort of a license to engage in harassment without the employer being held accountable for it.”

But Widiss said employers still have a great interest in making clear that workplace harassment won’t be tolerated.

“It’s not as though employers don’t bear any responsibility,” she said. “Good employers understand harassing conduct is injurious to the work force. People are not going to be productive employees if they’re subject to that type of harassment.”•

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  1. People have heard of Magna Carta, and not the Provisions of Oxford & Westminster. Not that anybody really cares. Today, it might be considered ethnic or racial bias to talk about the "Anglo Saxon common law." I don't even see the word English in the blurb above. Anyhow speaking of Edward I-- he was famously intolerant of diversity himself viz the Edict of Expulsion 1290. So all he did too like making parliament a permanent institution-- that all must be discredited. 100 years from now such commemorations will be in the dustbin of history.

  2. Oops, I meant discipline, not disciple. Interesting that those words share such a close relationship. We attorneys are to be disciples of the law, being disciplined to serve the law and its source, the constitutions. Do that, and the goals of Magna Carta are advanced. Do that not and Magna Carta is usurped. Do that not and you should be disciplined. Do that and you should be counted a good disciple. My experiences, once again, do not reveal a process that is adhering to the due process ideals of Magna Carta. Just the opposite, in fact. Braveheart's dying rebel (for a great cause) yell comes to mind.

  3. It is not a sign of the times that many Ind licensed attorneys (I am not) would fear writing what I wrote below, even if they had experiences to back it up. Let's take a minute to thank God for the brave Baron's who risked death by torture to tell the government that it was in the wrong. Today is a career ruination that whistleblowers risk. That is often brought on by denial of licenses or disciple for those who dare speak truth to power. Magna Carta says truth rules power, power too often claims that truth matters not, only Power. Fight such power for the good of our constitutional republics. If we lose them we have only bureaucratic tyranny to pass onto our children. Government attorneys, of all lawyers, should best realize this and work to see our patrimony preserved. I am now a government attorney (once again) in Kansas, and respecting the rule of law is my passion, first and foremost.

  4. I have dealt with more than a few I-465 moat-protected government attorneys and even judges who just cannot seem to wrap their heads around the core of this 800 year old document. I guess monarchial privileges and powers corrupt still ..... from an academic website on this fantastic "treaty" between the King and the people ... "Enduring Principles of Liberty Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. There are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day: "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." "To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Inspiration for Americans During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land." http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/

  5. I'm not sure what's more depressing: the fact that people would pay $35,000 per year to attend an unaccredited law school, or the fact that the same people "are hanging in there and willing to follow the dean’s lead in going forward" after the same school fails to gain accreditation, rendering their $70,000 and counting education worthless. Maybe it's a good thing these people can't sit for the bar.

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