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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. @ President Snow, like they really read these comments or have the GUTS to show what is the right thing to do. They are just worrying about planning the next retirement party, the others JUST DO NOT CARE about what is right. Its the Good Ol'Boys - they do not care about the rights of the mother or child, they just care about their next vote, which, from what I gather, the mother left the state of Indiana because of the domestic violence that was going on through out the marriage, the father had three restraining orders on him from three different women, but yet, the COA judges sent a strong message, go ahead men put your women in place, do what you have to do, you have our backs... I just wish the REAL truth could be told about this situation... Please pray for this child and mother that God will some how make things right and send a miracle from above.

  2. I hear you.... Us Christians are the minority. The LGBTs groups have more rights than the Christians..... How come when we express our faith openly in public we are prosecuted? This justice system do not want to seem "bias" but yet forgets who have voted them into office.

  3. Perhaps the lady chief justice, or lady appellate court chief judge, or one of the many female federal court judges in Ind could lead this discussion of gender disparity? THINK WITH ME .... any real examples of race or gender bias reported on this ezine? But think about ADA cases ... hmmmm ... could it be that the ISC actually needs to tighten its ADA function instead? Let's ask me or Attorney Straw. And how about religion? Remember it, it used to be right up there with race, and actually more protected than gender. Used to be. Patrick J Buchanan observes: " After World War II, our judicial dictatorship began a purge of public manifestations of the “Christian nation” Harry Truman said we were. In 2009, Barack Obama retorted, “We do not consider ourselves to be a Christian nation.” Secularism had been enthroned as our established religion, with only the most feeble of protests." http://www.wnd.com/2017/02/is-secession-a-solution-to-cultural-war/#q3yVdhxDVMMxiCmy.99 I could link to any of my supreme court filings here, but have done that more than enough. My case is an exclamation mark on what PJB writes. BUT not in ISC, where the progressives obsess on race and gender .... despite a lack of predicate acts in the past decade. Interested in reading more on this subject? Search for "Florida" on this ezine.

  4. Great questions to six jurists. The legislature should open a probe to investigate possible government corruption. Cj rush has shown courage as has justice Steven David. Who stands with them?

  5. The is an unsigned editorial masquerading as a news story. Almost everyone quoted was biased in favor of letting all illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. (Ignoring that Obama deported 3.5 million in 8 years). For some reason Obama enforcing part of the immigration laws was O.K. but Trump enforcing additional parts is terrible. I have listed to press conferences and explanations of the Homeland Security memos and I gather from them that less than 1 million will be targeted for deportation, the "dreamers" will be left alone and illegals arriving in the last two years -- especially those arriving very recently -- will be subject to deportation but after the criminals. This will not substantially affect the GDP negatively, especially as it will take place over a number of years. I personally think this is a rational approach to the illegal immigration problem. It may cause Congress to finally pass new immigration laws rationalizing the whole immigration situation.

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