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.

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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.

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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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