Indiana News

Ball State Lawsuit Goes Before U.S. Supreme Court

Justices to use case to clarify past rulings on workplace harassment

11/26/2012

The U.S. Supreme Court will use a lawsuit against Ball State to clarify its rulings on workplace harassment.

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The Court ruled in a pair of 1998 decisions that employers can be liable for harassment if they're negligent in responding to the situation. But they're automatically liable if the harasser is a supervisor.

Since then, however, lower courts have disagreed on the definition of a supervisor. When a Ball State catering assistant accused a fellow kitchen worker of menacing her physically and using racial slurs, a federal judge and the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected her claims against the university because her co-worker had no power to hire or fire anyone.

Other appeals courts have held that overseeing day-to-day assignments is enough authority to qualify as a supervisor.

The Justice Department joined in Monday's oral arguments, contending the hiring-and-firing standard is "unduly restrictive." But the solicitor general's office argues in a friend-of-the-court brief that even the looser standard isn't enough to make Ball State responsible in this case. While the co-worker's written job description includes supervision of assistants in the kitchen, her actual authority is much hazier. And the catering division's general manager has testified he moved to keep the feuding workers separate after the conflicts first arose.

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