Des Moines, IA- Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision in a sexual harassment and discrimination case that sexual harassment attorneys and victim advocates believed would make it more difficult for victims to hold their harassers and their employers accountable. Now it appears as those fears might be coming true.
In the case, Vance v. Ball State University, the U.S. Supreme Court was tasked with defining who qualifies as a supervisor in the workplace in regards to sexual harassment and discrimination cases.
The case centered on Maetta Vance, a former employee of Ball State University, who alleged that one of her supervisors in the catering department threatened her and used racial epithets.
Vance complained about her supervisor’s behavior and Ball State conducted an investigation. Because they were unable to corroborate Vance’s claims. She filed a civil suit against the university, but her case was thrown out upon appeal after the court said Vance’s harasser did not have the power to hire, fire or discipline any employees and was therefore not a supervisor, NPR reported.
Vance took her case to U.S. Supreme Court, who eventually agreed with the appeals court and affirmed their definition of “supervisor.” The ruling rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition of supervisor, which stated that a supervisor is someone who can direct an employee’s actions in the workplace, which many senior employees have the power to do even though they aren’t deemed supervisors.
When the U.S. Supreme Court issued their decision in 2013, there was justified concern that it would make it more difficult for employees to prevail in sexual harassment cases.
That appears to be the case since an investigation by the National Women’s Law Center for Think Progress found that since the high court’s decision at least 43 sexual harassment cases have been thrown out based on high court’s definition of supervisor thereby absolving employers of responsibility in sexual harassment cases.
Think Progress pointed out that when the accused harasser is a supervisor, their employer must take responsibility for their actions. But when the harasser is simply a coworker, an employer cannot be held liable unless they failed to oversee working conditions or failed to address harassment once they were made aware it is becoming an issue.
“We are seeing cases in which, after Vance, employees who have suffered egregious harassment are having their cases thrown out on a court determination that the definition of supervisor isn’t met,” the NWLC’s Liz Watson told Think Progress. “The concerns of folks who want to make sure that legal remedies are available to victims of harassment about the Vance decision are being borne out.”
With any sexual harassment case, the person seeking legal recourse has a significant burden of proof to meet before they are successful. This requires a thorough investigation and someone well-versed in employment law. An experienced sexual harassment attorney understands the challenges they and their clients face and will work tirelessly to ensure their client is triumphant.