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Supreme Court limits employer liability in harassment cases

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a very controversial employment law decision that will effect the rights of employees here in San Antonio. The decision pertains to harassment cases, and it will make it more difficult for employees to hold their employers accountable when they are harassed by their managers.

Before we get to the ruling, it is important to provide a bit of background on employer responsibility when it comes to harassment.

Employers can generally be sued for illegal harassment in two situations:

1. When a supervisor has harassed an employee or group of employees.

2. When harassment took place among co-workers or others in the workplace and the harassment was reported to the employer, but the employer did nothing to put a stop to the wrongdoing.

The Supreme Court has been asked to define "supervisor" as it pertains to harassment claims. The specific case before the court involved an African-American woman who said that her supervisor harassed her on the basis of her race. The employer argued that the alleged harasser was the woman's co-worker, not her supervisor.

The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, deciding that in order for a worker to be considered a supervisor he or she must be in a position to hire and fire workers.

This is contrary to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition of supervisor, as someone who has the authority to direct a worker's activities and take some employment actions.

The new definition may significantly impact the rights of workers to hold their employers accountable for the improper actions of managerial workers. In this day and age, many people are directly supervised by people who are not authorized to hire or fire them, but who are--for most intents and purposes--their bosses.

This decision, like the one we discussed last week, split the Supreme Court Justices. One dissenting judge was so upset by the outcome of these cases that she has asked Congress to overturn the rulings.

Although these rulings do limit labor rights, it is important for workers in Texas to continue to seek counsel to learn whether it is possible to pursue legal recourse against an employer that practices or allows discrimination or harassment.

Source: The New York Times, "Supreme Court Raises Bar to Prove Job Discrimination," Steven Greenhouse, June 24, 2013

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