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Supreme Court Rules for Ball State U. in Workplace-Harassment Case


shutterstock_34007884In a ruling that could limit the liability of colleges and other employers for workplace harassment, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court’s decision to throw out a lawsuit against Ball State University and took a narrow view of who is considered a “supervisor” under federal employment-discrimination law.

The court, in a 5-to-4 ruling, said an employee is a considered a supervisor only when he or she is empowered by his or her employer to take “tangible employment actions,” such as hiring, firing, demoting, promoting, transferring, or disciplining a person.

The legal definition of supervisor is significant because the Supreme Court has previously held that an employer generally carries vicarious, automatic liability for damages resulting from workplace harassment committed by an employee who is in a supervisory role and thus acts as its agent.

Several higher-education associations had weighed in on the case, Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556, and asked the court to avoid adopting a broad definition of workplace supervisor that the groups said would have left them unduly exposed to lawsuits.

The American Council on Education and five other higher-education groups urged the justices, in a friend-of-the-court brief, to base their test of whether someone is a supervisor on how much authority that person actually has and to avoid defining a supervisor in a manner that focuses on workplace titles or on the perceptions of workers in settings where the chain of command is unclear.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that the definition of supervisor that the court had adopted “accounts for the fact that many modern organizations have abandoned a hierarchical management structure in favor of giving employees overlapping authority with respect to work assignments.”

The opinion states that employees will not be left unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks. In such cases, Justice Alito wrote, a victim can prevail by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur.

Justice Alito’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

A Strong Dissent

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in dissent, said the majority’s narrow definition of supervisor would significantly limit employees’ protections under federal law. She was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia M. Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

“The ball is once again in Congress’s court to correct the error into which the court has fallen,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “and to restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the court weakens today.”

The case involved a lawsuit filed in 2006 by Maetta Vance, a black dining-services worker at Ball State who said she had been subjected to racist harassment by white co-workers. Among those she accused of such harassment was Saundra Davis, a catering specialist whom Ms. Vance said she regarded as a supervisor because Ms. Davis had significant power over her on the job, directing the activities of Ms. Vance and others in the Indiana university’s banquet and catering division.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had upheld a federal district court’s decision to throw out Ms. Vance’s lawsuit. The appeals court’s ruling said Ball State had not been negligent in dealing with Ms. Vance’s complaints against co-workers because it had promptly investigated the alleged incidents and taken disciplinary action where appropriate.

The appellate ruling said Ms. Davis did not qualify as Ms. Vance’s supervisor because, even though she directed many of Ms. Vance’s daily activities, she did not have the power to directly affect the terms of Ms. Vance’s employment, by hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, transferring, or formally disciplining her.

The Supreme Court’s majority said that there was no evidence that Ball State had empowered Ms. Davis to take any tangible employment actions against Ms. Vance and, therefore, the court affirmed the Seventh Circuit’s decision.

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