Supreme Court Makes It Harder to Sue For Discrimination At Work

Supreme Court Justice Samuel AlitoBy Jonathan Stempel
and Lawrence Hurley

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday made it harder for workers to sue their employers over alleged harassment in the workplace, ruling against a catering assistant at an Indiana university who claimed that she was discriminated against on the basis of race. In a 5-4 vote divided along familiar ideological lines, the court said Maetta Vance, who is black, could not sue Ball State University over the alleged taunts and threats made by a white colleague who Vance considered to be her supervisor.

The court had in 1998 said that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 let harassment victims hold their employers responsible for improper conduct by a supervisor, but never defined exactly what a supervisor was. Writing for the majority, conservative Justice Samuel Alito (pictured above) adopted a narrower version of a supervisor than Vance had proposed.

"An employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a 'significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits,' " Alito wrote. The court rejected Vance's argument that a supervisor was anyone with day-to-day oversight of an employee's activities.

It also rejected what Alito called the "nebulous" guidance by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to link supervisor status to the exercise of significant oversight over an employee's daily work. Joining Alito's majority opinion were the court's other conservative members: Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. She said that the majority "ignores the conditions under which members of the workforce labor, and disserves the objective of Title VII to prevent discrimination from infecting the nation's workplaces." Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the dissent.

Monday's decision upheld a June 2011 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of Ball State, which is based in Muncie, Ind. The federal government officially supported neither party. Several women's and civil rights groups supported Vance's appeal, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group, the National Retail Federation and various conservative groups supported Ball State.

Vance, who prepared everything from boxed lunches to formal dinners in her job as a catering assistant at Ball State, had claimed she faced racial epithets and threats of physical harm at work. Many of her problems stemmed from her dealings with Saundra Davis, a white woman whom she viewed as a supervisor. She said that general manager Bill Kimes, also white, did not protect her and treated other workers better.

Vance said Ball State eventually retaliated against her complaints by making her a "glorified salad girl" who cut vegetables and washed fruit, despite a recent promotion. Daniel Ortiz, a lawyer for Vance, was not immediately available for comment. Ball State had no immediate comment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, agreed with the lower court and the university, saying that people "must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer." But he didn't rule completely for the medical center, sending the case back to the lower courts after saying that a decision on the resolution of the case "is better suited by courts closer to the facts of this case."

Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business' Small Business Legal Center, cheered the decision. "If courts were allowed to label employees with little managerial authority as `supervisors,' that would have substantially increased the number of frivolous lawsuits brought against small businesses and would have done little, if anything, to reduce harassment," she said. "For small businesses, the increased possibility of liability and ensuing costs would have been devastating. We are very pleased with the Supreme Court's decision."

Kennedy, Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted together in those cases. Ginsburg, and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented together both times.

Ginsburg said that she hopes Congress intervenes in both cases, just as it did in past Title VII cases. "Today, the ball again lies in Congress' court to correct this court's wayward interpretations of Title VII," she said.

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