U.S. Supreme Court justices grappled with the limits on holding employers responsible for racial and sexual harassment, asking about country music and underheated offices while seeking to apply federal job-bias laws to the modern workplace.
The high court today heard arguments on an appeal by Maetta Vance, a black Ball State University catering worker, who is seeking to revive her racial harassment claim against the school. At issue is whether the alleged harasser was Vance’s supervisor, a status that would make it easier for the worker to win her case.
Employers are generally liable for racial and sexual harassment by supervisors. Workers file more than 30,000 formal harassment complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission each year.
Today’s hour-long session produced little disagreement on the question. Both sides, as well as the Obama administration, said a federal appeals court used the wrong legal standard in throwing out Vance’s lawsuit on the grounds that the alleged harasser wasn’t a supervisor.
The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that, to be a supervisor, a co-worker must have the authority to “directly affect the terms and conditions” of employment, such as having the power to hire, fire, demote or transfer employees.
Vance, Ball State and the Obama administration all said that the lower court test was too limited and that a supervisor could also be someone with power to direct an employee’s daily work activities.
Ball State’s lawyer, Gregory Garre, said that test made sense in a modern workplace, where “jobs are less hierarchical, more collaborative.”
That stance left some members of the court dissatisfied. Justice Antonin Scalia told Ball State’s lawyer the court took up the case to decide whether the 7th Circuit approach was the right one.
“You don’t even defend that,” Scalia told Garre. “So there is nobody here defending the 7th Circuit.”
Chief Justice John Roberts said the alternative test might prove unworkable. He questioned whether it would include a hypothetical workplace in which the senior employee was allowed to select the music and then threatened to play country songs unless a coworker agreed to date him.
Justice Samuel Alito later asked about a hypothetical employee given the authority to assign workspace, including an office with no heating or air conditioning.
Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an employer can be held liable if a supervisor discriminates against an employee based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Vance sued Ball State alleging that a co-worker in the Muncie, Indiana, university’s banquet and catering department had slapped her, threatened her and referred to her using racial epithets.
The advocates today spent much of their time debating whether the coworker, Saundra Davis, had authority to direct Vance’s day-to-day activities. Garre contended that Davis didn’t have that authority because other people, including the chef, made the daily work assignments.
Vance’s attorney, Daniel Ortiz, said his client should be given a new chance to gather evidence.
The case is Vance v. Ball State University, 11-556.
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