Supreme Court decision narrows workers’ rights

Posted in Sexual Harassment on July 19, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a controversial decision in a sexual harassment case that may impact the labor rights of workers here in California. The 5-4 decision essentially limited employer liability in sexual harassment cases, and some of the Supreme Court justices are so upset about the ruling that they have called on Congress to overrule it.

The Supreme Court’s decision limited the definition of the word “supervisor.” For the purpose of sexual harassment claims, the court ruled, a person can generally only be considered a supervisor if he or she has the power to hire and fire workers.

The distinction is very important because employers can be held liable when a supervisor harasses a worker. When a worker harrasses another worker, the employer can only be held liable only if the victim made a complaint about the harassment and the employer failed to stop it.

The particular case before the court involved a dining hall worker at a university who said that a supervisor harassed her on the basis of her race. The alleged harasser did not have the authority to fire this worker, but she did have the control to direct her work activities.

Many people here in San Francisco have supervisors that do not have the authority to fire them, but certainly have enough authority to make their work lives pretty miserable if they so choose. Because of that, many people have said that this ruling is completely out of touch with the modern workplace.

Many people are optimistic that Congress will review this decision. For now, workers do still have the right to file harassment complaints with their employers against any type of supervisor–one that meets the Supreme Court’s definition or one that does not. If an employer fails to intervene to halt the harassment, the worker may be able to file a harassment lawsuit against the employer.

Harassment laws are very complex, and this ruling makes things even tougher. Those that are being harassed or treated unfairly at work may benefit from talking to an employment law attorney about their rights.

Source: The Atlantic, “The Supreme Court Ruling on Workplace Harassment That Got Buried,” July 16, 2013