(CN) - Employers may be liable for workplace harassment only if the alleged harasser has the power to hire, fire or take other "tangible employment actions," a narrowly divided Supreme Court ruled Monday.
On a 5-4 vote, the justices upheld the 7th Circuit's ruling
for Ball State University in a Title VII claim of workplace harassment.
Petitioner Maetta Vance, a black catering assistant at the university in Muncie, Ind., claimed that her white co-worker, Saundra Davis, harassed her because of her race. Davis allegedly "gave her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her," according to Vance's complaints with BSU and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Vance said Davis would block her on the elevator and give her "weird" looks.
When the university failed to put a stop to the alleged harassment, Vance filed a federal lawsuit complaining of a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A federal judge and the 7th Circuit ruled for the university, saying BSU is not vicariously liable because Davis could not hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance.
But the EEOC and other federal appeals court have defined a supervisor as anyone with "significant discretion" over another worker's daily tasks.
The justices took up
the case to resolve this conflict among the lower courts.
"We hold that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a 'significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the conservative majority.
"We reject the nebulous definition of a 'supervisor' advocated in the EEOC Guidance and substantially adopted by several courts of appeal," Alito added.
He said Vance's "reliance on colloquial uses of the term 'supervisor' is misplaced, and her contention that our cases require the EEOC's abstract definition is simply wrong."
Dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the majority's ruling "ignores the condition under which members of the work force labor" and "disserves the objective of Title VII to prevent discrimination from infecting the Nation's workplaces."
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joined her in dissent.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined the majority opinion.