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Workplace discrimination is the issue in a Supreme Court case

Workers who may be subjected to racial or sexual harassment on the job will want to pay attention to the Supreme Court's upcoming ruling on an employment discrimination case. The Court is expected to issue its decision early in 2013 in the case, which involves a banquet and catering worker at Ball State University.

WORKER'S DISCRIMINATION CLAIM WAS DISMISSED

The female African-American worker was employed by the University since 1978. During most of her time at the University, she was the only African-American employee in the banquet and catering department.

She claimed that her supervisors harassed her due to her race. One woman in particular taunted her with insulting racist comments and threatened her with references to the Ku Klux Klan, she said. The resulting work environment was racially hostile.

Complaints to higher-level authorities at the university resulted in a referral to counseling for the banquet worker and the others who harassed her. The university did state that it would not tolerate racial harassment, but did not discipline the offending employees or compensate the complaining worker.

The worker sued the University, but a lower-level federal court threw out her lawsuit, ruling that the person she said had harassed her was technically not her supervisor. A supervisor, said the court, is someone who has hiring and firing authority and the power to discipline and demote the employee, and the woman in question did not have that level of authority.

SUPREME COURT WILL MULL OVER A DEFINITION

The definition of "supervisor" is critical to the case, which the worker appealed to the United States Supreme Court. That is because the Court has decided in earlier cases that a supervisor acts as an agent of the employer. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer is forbidden from discriminating against employees in the workplace based on race or gender. If an agent of the employee is found to have discriminated against a worker on either of those bases, the employer is liable for the discrimination.

The meaning of "supervisor" that has been widely accepted by most federal courts in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country is fairly broad. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came up with a definition, which states that a supervisor is someone with the authority to recommend employment actions or to direct another employee in daily work activities. The supervisor's duties could include, for example, scheduling and assigning workers.

The Supreme Court will have to consider whether the lower court was correct in employing its own narrower definition of supervisor. If so, then the woman who harassed the Ball State banquet worker was not acting as an agent of the employer and the University is off the hook for Title VII liability. Under the more widely accepted, broader definition the University would be liable.

JUSTICE FOR AFFECTED WORKERS

The Supreme Court's decision may mean that more workers will be able to sue employers for discrimination on the job, or it may restrict such lawsuits. Each case is different, and any person who has experienced racial or sexual discrimination at work should consult with an employment attorney. An attorney who has experience with this type of case will be able to evaluate a worker's discrimination claim and pursue a Title VII lawsuit when the facts justify it.