As the country, and the media, focused on the major progress made on gay marriage last week, some important Supreme Court decisions came out under the radar. These quieter decisions were made along party lines, with the five conservative justices ruling in favor of businesses and against individuals on workplace harassment and discrimination claims.
In one case, the Court ruled against an employee of Ball State University who suffered racial harassment at work by someone who supervised her. The court determined that the employer wasn’t responsible for the harassment because person who was doing the harassing was technically not a “supervisor.” The Court defined a supervisor as someone who has the power to hire, fire, demote and promote employees. And further, it said that you can’t hold the employer liable for the actions of a non-supervisor employee unless they have been given the power to hire, fire, etc.
In reality, workplace hierarchies are complex, and someone can still be considered a boss, and in a position of power, even if they don’t do the hiring or firing. In this case, the employee stated that the harasser was essentially her supervisor. This decision goes too far in protecting employers from liability. Employers are the ones with the power and should be held responsible for ensuring an environment free from harassment.
In another case, the Court ruled against an employee with a discrimination claim against a hospital. The plaintiff claimed that he was denied a job in retaliation for earlier complaints he made against the employer for ethnic and religious bias. The law protects employees from this type of retaliatory action (being fired or denied a job because you complained about discrimination). However, the Court said the doctor didn’t have a good enough case because he couldn’t prove that the retaliation was the direct cause of not getting the job. Previously, an employee only had to prove that retaliation was a motivating factor.
It’s already incredibly difficult for an employee to prove workplace discrimination and make a solid case against an employer. This makes it even harder in retaliation cases. In reality, there rarely is proof of the kind that the Court requires. An employer is not going to write down that so-and-so was retaliated against because of their race, ethnicity, religion, etc.
As glad as I am that the rights of some were recognized by the Court, it’s discouraging to see these limitations on an employee’s ability to seek justice for harassment and discrimination. Or more specifically, it’s discouraging to see employers protected from claims when they often hold the power to prevent harassment and discrimination of their employees in the first place. Bottom line is that if you are being discriminated against, your chances of winning a lawsuit went from really difficult to almost impossible.
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