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Court ruling affects workplace suits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in a workplace harassment case may alter the way future harassment suits are brought against employers.

In the case of Vance v. Ball State University, the court ruled 5-4 to nar­­row the definition of “super­­visor.” Maetta Vance, an Afri­­can-Ameri­­can dining hall worker at Ball State in Indiana, sued the school, saying a white supervisor, Saundra Davis, “launched a campaign of ra­cial harassment and intimidation against her.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the university could not be liable for the harassment because Davis, who di­­rected Vance’s activities on the job, did not have the power to hire and fire her.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that the university could be liable only for Davis’ actions if it had given her the power 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.’ ”

Although the case was about ra­­cial harassment, it will also apply to suits brought for other forms of har­­ass­­ment, including sexual and religious.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the dissenting opinion that “Ex­­posed to a fellow employee’s har­­ass­­­­ment, one can walk away or tell the offender to ‘buzz off.’ A supervisor’s slings and arrows, however, are not so easily avoided. An employee who confronts her harassing supervisor risks, for example, receiving an undesirable or unsafe work assignment or an unwanted transfer.”

The decision will make it more difficult to file a suit claiming an employer is liable for harassment by a supervisor, but employees can still sue under a negligence claim when the company fails to stop harassment by a co-worker.

— Adapted from “The Supreme Court Ruling on Workplace Harassment That Got Buried,” Kay Steiger, The Atlantic.

Online resource: Read more about the case in "Supreme Court Defines 'Supervisor' in Bias Cases."

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