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Job-Supervisor Harassment Suits Limited by High Court

U.S. Supreme Court put new limits on lawsuits claiming on-the-job harassment, throwing out a case filed by a black catering worker who said a colleague slapped her and used racial epithets.

The justices, voting 5-4, said the alleged harasser didn’t qualify as Maetta Vance’s supervisor, a status that would make it easier for the worker at Muncie, Indiana-based Ball State University to win her case.

In a second 5-4 ruling, the court made it harder for workers to win claims that their employer retaliated against them for complaining about discrimination.

The court was divided along the same ideological lines in both decisions. Voting in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

In the Ball State case, Alito wrote for the court that people qualify as supervisors only if they can take tangible employment actions against the alleged victim.

The issue is an important one because 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.

Retaliation Claim

The second opinion, written by Kennedy, involved claims by workers that their employer retaliated against them for complaining they were subjected to discrimination.

In the case before the court, Naiel Nassar said he was denied a position with a University of Texas medical center because he complained about suffering discrimination as a university faculty member on account of his Middle Eastern background.

The court said that in such cases, the worker must show that retaliation was the reason the employer took action, not merely one of several motives.

The cases are Vance v. Ball State University, 11-556, and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 12-484.

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