This past week, the Supreme Court issued its decision in an employment discrimination case that may have far reaching consequences. In Vance v. Ball State, the nation’s highest court defined who is a “supervisor.” This issue arose in a race discrimination case involving a woman – Maetta Vance – who worked at a catering service at Ball State. Vance asserted that she was harassed by her white co-workers, especially one particular co-worker – Saundra Davis. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees “because of” their race or color. That means that employers may not take your race or color, or your perceived race or color, into consideration in making employment decisions.
In some circumstances an employer’s liability for harassment depends on the status of the harasser. For example in some situations where a harasser is a supervisor of an employee, then the employer may be found to be “strictly liable” [in other words, responsible]. However, other times where the harasser is considered a co-worker, an employer may only be found responsible if it is found to be negligent (i.e. if it fails to take actions to control the harassing behaviors).
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In Ball, the job status of the harasser was in question. Although Davis didn’t specifically have the authority to hire or fire Vance, she did exhibit control over Vance, directed Vance’s work and wasn’t required to “clock in” like the other hourly employees. In a position supported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Vance argued that Davis should be considered a supervisor because she had the authority to control Vance’s daily activities and evaluate performance.
However, in a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court rejected this argument defining a supervisor narrowly as someone who has the power to take “tangible employment action” against the victim. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said tangible action means making a significant change in employment status like “hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”
This decision was far from unanimous. In addition to writing a strongly worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took a rare opportunity to read her dissent from the bench stating “this decision was not what legislators intended when they drafted federal anti-discrimination laws.” Justice Ginsburg gave numerous examples where employers should be responsible for a worker in charge’s harassing behavior although they may not be considered supervisors under the Court’s narrow definition.
Ginsburg also stated she hopes Congress intervenes. “Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court to correct this court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII,” she said.
As Georgia employment discrimination lawyers dedicated to eliminating workplace harassment, we agree with Justice Ginsburg and will be keeping track of all developments concerning employment discrimination laws. If you have questions about employment discrimination or harassment, or believe that you may have been subjected to workplace discrimination, please contact the top Atlanta employment discrimination lawyers at Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, LLC for immediate case evaluation.