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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. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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