On Monday the Supreme Court ruled that workplace discrimination can only be considered within a legal context if the responsible party is a supervisor with the authority to hire and fire. In other words, employment discrimination connected to supervisors who only direct work assignments will no longer count.
The ruling narrowly passed by a 5-4 margin, and marks a victory for Ball State University, which was sued by a black kitchen worker who experience harassment and racial discrimination at the hands of her co-workers. Justice Samuel Alito stated that his ruling maintains the definition of “supervisor” currently in use across several parts of the U.S. and “will not thwart recovery from workplace harassment.”
However, it is notable that the justices took 7 months to reach their conclusion on the case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented from the majority ruling, stated that the decision demonstrates a troubling “disregard for the realities of the workplace”; she is now pushing for Congress to intervene.
The issue reviewed by the court was quite weighty, can carries the potential to set a lasting precedent: What constitutes a “supervisor” when determining instances of employment discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
Employment Discrimination Lawsuits
From the outset, details of the Ball State University case presented a number of obstacles. Maetta Vance, the employee who alleged racial discrimination by her supervisors, was the only person of color in the University’s dining and catering department. According to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, “supervisor” was defined as a person with the authority to hire, fire, promote or discipline workers, and it therefore determined that Vance’s harassers fell short of that definition.
Many justices expressed concern about redefining the term, which could give rise to an avalanche of new employment discrimination lawsuits and harassment lawsuits. They envisioned Employment Attorneys coming out of the woodwork.
Chief Justice John Roberts and conservative Justices Scalia and Alito hedged on what forms of workplace behavior would count as discrimination if the appeals court definition was struck down. Could one claim workplace discrimination for being forced to listen to country music? Or for being forced to chop onions all day?
On the other hand, liberal Justice Elena Kagan pointed out that under the definition of the appeals court, even professors who harass or abuse their assistants and secretaries would no longer be liable for employment discrimination lawsuits since they are rarely responsible for hiring and firing.