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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.

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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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  1. Ah yes... Echoes of 1963 as a ghostly George Wallace makes his stand at the Schoolhouse door. We now know about the stand of personal belief over service to all constituents at the Carter County Clerk door. The results are the same, bigotry unable to follow the directions of the courts and the courts win. Interesting to watch the personal belief take a back seat rather than resign from a perception of local power to make the statement.

  2. An oath of office, does it override the conscience? That is the defense of overall soldier who violates higher laws, isnt it? "I was just following orders" and "I swore an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer" etc. So this is an interesting case of swearing a false oath and then knowing that it was wrong and doing the right thing. Maybe they should chop her head off too like the "king's good servant-- but God's first" like St Thomas More. ...... We wont hold our breath waiting for the aclu or other "civil liberterians" to come to her defense since they are all arrayed on the gay side, to a man or should I say to a man and womyn?

  3. Perhaps we should also convene a panel of independent anthropological experts to study the issues surrounding this little-known branch of human sacrifice?

  4. I'm going to court the beginning of Oct. 2015 to establish visitation and request my daughters visits while she is in jail. I raised my grandchild for the first two and half years. She was born out of wedlock and the father and his adopted mother wantwd her aborted, they went as far as sueing my daughter for abortion money back 5mo. After my grandchild was born. Now because of depression and drug abuse my daughter lost custody 2 and a half years ago. Everyting went wrong in court when i went for custody my lawyer was thrown out and a replacment could only stay 45 min. The judge would not allow a postponement. So the father won. Now he is aleinating me and my daughter. No matter the amount of time spent getting help for my daughter and her doing better he runs her in the ground to the point of suicide because he wants her to be in a relationship with him. It is a sick game of using my grandchild as a pawn to make my daughter suffer for not wanting to be with him. I became the intervener in the case when my daughter first got into trouble. Because of this they gave me her visitation. Im hoping to get it again there is questions of abuse on his part and I want to make sure my grandchild is doing alright. I really dont understand how the parents have rights to walk in and do whatever they want when the refuse to stand up and raise the child at first . Why should it take two and a half years to decide you want to raise your child.The father used me so he could finish college get a job and stop paying support by getting custody. Support he was paying my daughter that I never saw.

  5. Pence said when he ordered the investigation that Indiana residents should be troubled by the allegations after the video went viral. Planned Parenthood has asked the government s top health scientists at the National Institutes of Health to convene a panel of independent experts to study the issues surrounding the little-known branch of medicine.

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