Supreme Court Reviews Work Harassment Case

Uploaded by PBSNewsHour on 26.11.2012

bjbjVwVw JEFFREY BROWN: Next tonight: Who qualifies as a supervisor in the workplace?
That might seem obvious most of the time, but as a legal matter, courts have come to
different conclusions, some saying it's confined to someone with powers such as hiring and
firing, others deciding on a broader definition. The Supreme Court looked at the issue today
in a case where a woman claims a co-worker harassed her because of her race. Marcia Coyle
of "The National Law Journal" was in the courtroom to hear the arguments and is here with us
tonight. Welcome back, Marcia. MARCIA COYLE: Thank you, Jeff. JEFFREY BROWN: So, first,
the facts of the case, Vance v. Ball State University. MARCIA COYLE, "The National Law
Journal": Right. Well, Jeff, first of all, this case involves Title VII of the Civil
Rights Act, which, as you know, is our nation's major job anti-discrimination law. And under
that law, an employer can be held liable if a supervisor harasses an employee. And that's
because the supervisor is imbued with the employer's authority. JEFFREY BROWN: Key word
being supervisor, right? MARCIA COYLE: Exactly. But an employer also can be held liable if
a non-supervisor employee harasses another employee. But it's tougher to prove. You have
to show the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to act. Maetta
Vance, brought this lawsuit against Ball State University. She's an African-American woman
working in the dining services division of the university, claimed she was harassed by
a white co-worker, was slapped on the head, blocked at the elevator, racial epithets were
used such as "Sambo" and "Buckwheat" in her presence. She complained, and, finally, she
brought her lawsuit against the university. She lost below in the lower courts. The lower
court, federal appellate court said that this co-worker wasn't a supervisor, and took the
definition that is probably the most restrictive, that is, the supervisor has to be somebody
who can make a tangible employment decision, such as hiring and firing. JEFFREY BROWN:
All right, so, today, it made its way to the Supreme Court, and her argument -- her lawyers
are arguing for something broader than that. MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. In fact, there was
an interesting argument because, not only her lawyer, but the lawyer for the federal
government and the lawyer for the university, didn't support the lower federal court's definition
of supervisor. JEFFREY BROWN: Even though they had won down there? MARCIA COYLE: Yes,
even though. JEFFREY BROWN: OK. MARCIA COYLE: But there were nuances here. First of all,
Miss Vance's lawyer believes the correct approach or standard is to say that anyone who controls
your daily activities is a supervisor for liability purposes. And the federal government
argued, Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan argued that the court should accept the EEOC,
the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's approach, which is either/or. You either do
make tangible employment decisions or you control an employee's daily activities. The
university argued, basically, we will accept the broader definition, but there has to be
some meaningful limits on it. The other employee -- the harassing employee cannot be somebody
who occasionally controls your activities. It has to be a meaningful control. JEFFREY
BROWN: So, on the side of -- in this case, it's university is the employer. MARCIA COYLE:
Yes. JEFFREY BROWN: The implications for -- wider implications for other companies? They would
be arguing against the broader definition. Right? MARCIA COYLE: Oh, absolutely. The U.S.
Chamber of Commerce and a number of... JEFFREY BROWN: It's a big deal for them, right? MARCIA
COYLE: It is. It's all about money liability. If the court accepts the stricter definition,
the lawyers and organizations that represent workers fear that employers will start moving
categories of workers into the supervisor category in order to avoid liability, whereas
employers are concerned with a broader definition that they will have greater potential liability.
JEFFREY BROWN: And did the justices tip their hands or any interesting questions that...
MARCIA COYLE: Well, I didn't see a lot of support for the strict definition, although
Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that there is an advantage to that, and that is you know
-- clearly, it's a bright-line rule -- what the analysis is going to be. He worried that
a broader definition creates sort of a continuum of employees who fall on that continuum as
to, you know, individual facts of each case are going to matter, and courts are going
to be drawn into endless debates as to who is a supervisor. JEFFREY BROWN: All right,
we will await that decision. In the meantime, the court also took another action today,
not arguments. But they sent back to the lower courts a case that goes -- concerns the Affordable
Care Act, of course, the big event from last session. MARCIA COYLE: Yes. JEFFREY BROWN:
Right? MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Well, Liberty University was one of four cases last term that challenged
the Affordable Care Act. Today, the court sent Liberty University's case back to the
Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals because Liberty University had raised other claims that the
Supreme Court didn't decide last term. Liberty University wants to challenge the individual
mandate to purchase insurance and the law's employer mandate to provide insurance on religious
grounds. Liberty University, as you know, was founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right. MARCIA COYLE: And it claims that the Affordable Care Act, those
two mandates in particular, violate the free expression of religion. JEFFREY BROWN: So,
the court is saying that was not something we took up last time, send it back to the
lower courts. Let them hear it. MARCIA COYLE: Let them rule, right. The lower court was
the only federal appellate court that refused to let Liberty University's lawsuit go forward
at all because of that old anti-injunction act. That was the only court that found that
that law blocked challenges to the Affordable Care Act. And the Supreme Court in its final
health care ruling said that that act didn't apply. JEFFREY BROWN: But, briefly, so now
there's a chance it will come back to the Supreme Court eventually, huh? MARCIA COYLE:
I will bet you dollars to donuts... JEFFREY BROWN: You will? (LAUGHTER) MARCIA COYLE:
... if Liberty University loses, that Liberty University will be back at the Supreme Court
probably next year. JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I'm not taking a bet against you. (LAUGHTER)
MARCIA COYLE: OK. JEFFREY BROWN: But we will talk about it if it happens, of course. MARCIA
COYLE: All right. JEFFREY BROWN: Marcia Coyle, thanks again. MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Jeff.
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