Justice Ginsburg Stands Up For Abused Employees

English: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justic...

It’s hard for targets of workplace bullying to prove their hostile work environment is a clear case of discrimination — bullying by definition falls outside of the protections of Title VII — but some plaintiffs still managed to win by proving they were fired or demoted in retaliation for filing a claim. Today’s Supreme Court decision just made that harder and a second “get out of jail free” card was awarded to businesses when SCOTUS narrowed the definition of whether that jerk harassing you is “technically” your supervisor. In what the Huffington Post called a “rare move,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told the court: “Both decisions dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended,” said Ginsburg, who then called on Congress to change the law to overturn the court.” In Vance v Ball Ginsburg wrote:

…Exhibiting remarkable resistance to the thrust of our prior decisions, workplace realities, and the EEOC’s Guidance, the Court embraces a position that relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ. Trumpeting the virtues of simplicity and administrability, the Court restricts supervisor status  to those with power to take tangible employment actions. In so restricting the definition of supervisor, the Court once again shuts from sight the “robust protection against workplace discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure… As a consequence of the Court’s truncated conception of supervisory authority, the Faragher and Ellerth framework has shifted in a decidedly employer-friendly direction. This realignment will leave many harassment victims without an effective remedy and undermine Title VII’s capacity to prevent workplace harassment.

Ginsburg, one of four dissenting justices, argues that both of today’s employer-friendly Supreme Court decisions further erode Title VII. It also does not send a welcoming message to those of us hoping to find a legislative and/or regulatory approach – state or national – to move beyond harassment and discrimination toward a broader protection against psychological harassment that falls outside of protections already in place. Ginsburg points to existing cases of severe power abuse to illustrate the depth of what workers endure and highlight the illogic of additional burdens now necessary to overcome even higher hurdles:

“…Workplace realities fortify my conclusion that harassment by an employee with power to direct subordinates’ day-to-day work activities should trigger vicarious employer liability. The following illustrations, none of them hypothetical, involve in-charge employees of the kind the Court today excludes from supervisory status.

Yasharay Mack: Yasharay Mack, an African-American woman, worked for the Otis Elevator Company as an elevator mechanic’s helper at the Metropolitan Life Building in New York City. James Connolly, the “mechanic in charge” and the senior employee at the site, targeted Mack for abuse. He commented frequently on her “fantastic ass,” “luscious lips,” and “beautiful eyes,” and, using deplorable racial epithets, opined that minorities and women did not “belong in the business.” Once, he pulled her on his lap, touched her buttocks, and tried to kiss her while others looked on. Connolly lacked authority to take tangible employment actions against mechanic’s helpers, but he did assign their work, control their schedules, and direct the particulars of their workdays. When he became angry with Mack, for example, he denied her overtime hours. And when she complained about the mistreatment, he scoffed, “I get away with everything.”

Donna Rhodes: Donna Rhodes, a seasonal highway maintainer for the Illinois Department of Transportation, was responsible for plowing snow during winter months. Michael Poladian was a “Lead Lead Worker” and Matt Mara, a “Technician” at the maintenance yard where Rhodes worked. Both men assembled plow crews and managed the work assignments of employees in Rhodes’s position, but neither had authority to hire, fire, promote, demote, transfer, or discipline employees. In her third season working at the yard, Rhodes was verbally assaulted with sex-based invectives and a pornographic image was taped to her locker. Poladian forced her to wash her truck in sub-zero temperatures, assigned her undesirable yard work instead of road crew work, and prohibited another employee from fixing the malfunctioning heating system in her truck. Conceding that Rhodes had been subjected to a sex-based hostile work environment, the Department of Transportation argued successfully in the District Court and Court of Appeals that Poladian and Mara were not Rhodes’s supervisors because they lacked authority to take tangible employment actions against her.

Clara Whitten: Clara Whitten worked at a discount retail store in Belton, South Carolina. On Whitten’s first day of work, the manager, Matt Green, told her to “give[him] what [he] want[ed]” in order to obtain approval for long weekends off from work. Later, fearing what might transpire, Whitten ignored Green’s order to join him in an isolated storeroom. Angered, Green instructed Whitten to stay late and clean the store. He demanded that she work over the weekend despite her scheduled day off. Dismissing her as “dumb and stupid,” Green threatened to make her life a “living hell.” Green lacked authority to fire, promote, demote, or otherwise make decisions affecting Whitten’s pocketbook. But he directed her activities, gave her tasks to accomplish, burdened her with undesirable work assignments, and controlled her schedule. He was usually the highest ranking employee in the store, and both Whitten and Green considered him the supervisor.

Monika Starke: CRST Van Expedited, Inc., an interstate transit company, ran a training program for newly hired truckdrivers requiring a 28-day on-the-road trip. Monika Starke participated in the program. Trainees like Starke were paired in a truck cabin with a single “lead driver” who lacked authority to hire, fire, promote, or demote, but who exercised control over the work environment for the duration of the trip. Lead drivers were responsible for providing instruction on CRST’s driving method, assigning specific tasks, and scheduling rest stops. At the end of the trip, lead drivers evaluated trainees’ performance with anonbinding pass or fail recommendation that could lead to full driver status. Over the course of Starke’s training trip, her first lead driver, Bob Smith, filled the cabin with vulgar sexual remarks, commenting on her breast size and comparing the gear stick to genitalia. A second lead driver, David Goodman, later forced her into unwanted sex with him, an outrage to which she submitted, believing it necessary to gain a passing grade. See EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc.

In each of these cases, a person vested with authority to control the conditions of a subordinate’s daily work life used his position to aid his harassment. But in none of them would the Court’s severely confined definition of supervisor yield vicarious liability for the employer. The senior elevator mechanic in charge, the Court today tells us, was Mack’s co-worker, not her supervisor. So was the store manager who punished Whitten with long hours for refusing to give him what he wanted. So were the lead drivers who controlled all aspects of Starke’s working environment, and the yard worker who kept other employees from helping Rhodes to control the heat in her truck.

As anyone with work experience would immediately grasp, James Connolly, Michael Poladian, Matt Mara,Matt Green, Bob Smith, and David Goodman wielded employer-conferred supervisory authority over their victims. Each man’s discriminatory harassment derived force from, and was facilitated by, the control reins he held…

Under any fair reading of Title VII, in each of the illustrative cases, the superior employee should have been classified a supervisor whose conduct would trigger vicarious liability.

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