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Supreme Court rules for Ball State in discrimination decision

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A sharply-divided Supreme Court on Monday made it more difficult for Americans to sue businesses for discrimination and retaliation, leading a justice to call for Congress to overturn the court's actions.

The court's conservatives, in two 5-4 decisions, ruled that a person must be able to hire and fire someone to be considered a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits, making it harder to blame a business for a co-worker's racism or sexism. The first case involved a former employee of Ball State University who contended she was the victim of racial harassment and retailiation in 2005.

The court then decided to limit how juries can decide retaliation lawsuits, saying victims must prove employers would not have taken action against them but for their intention to retaliate.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote both dissents for the court's liberal wing and in a rare move read one aloud in the courtroom, said the high court had "corralled Title VII," a law designed to stop discrimination in the nation's workplaces.

"Both decisions dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended," said Ginsburg, who called on Congress to change the law to overturn the court.

In the first case, Maetta Vance, who was a catering specialist at BSU, accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005. Vance sued the school under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying the university was liable since Davis was her supervisor. But a federal judge threw out her lawsuit, saying that since Davis could not fire Vance, she was only a co-worker, and since the university had taken corrective action, it was not liable for Davis' actions. The 7th Circuit upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.

But Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, said for the university to be liable, Davis must have had the authority to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline" Vance.

"We hold that an employee is a 'supervisor' for purposed of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim," Alito said. "Because there is no evidence that BSU empowered Davis to take any tangible employment actions against Vance, the judgment of the Seventh Circuit is affirmed."

Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron said the court made the wrong decision. "Deferring to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, the Supreme Court majority has imposed heavier burden for victims of workplace harassment and discrimination seeking justice in our courts," she said. "This decision makes it far easier for employers to evade responsibility for discrimination and harassment in the workplace."

In the second case, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center wanted a discrimination lawsuit won by Dr. Naiel Nassar thrown out. Nassar left in 2006 after complaining of harassment, but Parkland Hospital withdrew its job offer after one of his former supervisors opposed it. Nassar sued, saying the medical center retaliated against him for his discrimination complaints by encouraging Parkland to take away his job offer. A jury awarded him more than $3 million in damages.

The medical center appealed, saying the judge told the jury it only had to find that retaliation was a motivating factor in the supervisor's actions, called mixed-motive. Instead, it said, the judge should have told the jury it had to find that discriminatory action wouldn't have happened "but-for" the supervisor's desire to retaliate for liability to attach.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, agreed with the lower court and the university, saying people "must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer." But he didn't rule completely for the medical center, sending the case back to the lower courts after saying a decision on the resolution of the case "is better suited by courts closer to the facts of this case."

Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business' Small Business Legal Center, cheered the decision.

"If courts were allowed to label employees with little managerial authority as 'supervisors,' that would have substantially increased the number of frivolous lawsuits brought against small businesses and would have done little, if anything, to reduce harassment," she said. "For small businesses, the increased possibility of liability and ensuing costs would have been devastating. We are very pleased with the Supreme Court's decision."

Kennedy, Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted together in those cases.

Ginsburg, and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented together both times.

Ginsburg said she hopes Congress intervenes in both cases, just as it did in past Title VII cases. "Today, the ball again lies in Congress' court to correct this court's wayward interpretations of Title VII," she said.

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  • Liberal Bench legislating
    Ginsburgs' dissent is a classic example of liberals wanting to legislate from the bench. Her comments directed toward Congress are appalling for a sitting justice. Perhaps justice Kennedy should have said the same about Obamacare from the bench....so sad we have supreme court justices who don't know their role in government

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  1. to mention the rest of Molly's experience- she served as Communications Director for the Indianapolis Department of Public Works and also did communications for the state. She's incredibly qualified for this role and has a real love for Indianapolis and Indiana. Best of luck to her!

  2. Shall we not demand the same scrutiny for law schools, med schools, heaven forbid, business schools, etc.? How many law school grads are servers? How many business start ups fail and how many business grads get low paying jobs because there are so few high paying positions available? Why does our legislature continue to demean public schools and give taxpayer dollars to charters and private schools, ($171 million last year), rather than investing in our community schools? We are on a course of disaster regarding our public school attitudes unless we change our thinking in a short time.

  3. I agree with the other reader's comment about the chunky tomato soup. I found myself wanting a breadstick to dip into it. It tasted more like a marinara sauce; I couldn't eat it as a soup. In general, I liked the place... but doubt that I'll frequent it once the novelty wears off.

  4. The Indiana toll road used to have some of the cleanest bathrooms you could find on the road. After the lease they went downhill quickly. While not the grossest you'll see, they hover a bit below average. Am not sure if this is indicative of the entire deal or merely a portion of it. But the goals of anyone taking over the lease will always be at odds. The fewer repairs they make, the more money they earn since they have a virtual monopoly on travel from Cleveland to Chicago. So they only comply to satisfy the rules. It's hard to hand public works over to private enterprise. The incentives are misaligned. In true competition, you'd have multiple roads, each build by different companies motivated to make theirs more attractive. Working to attract customers is very different than working to maximize profit on people who have no choice but to choose your road. Of course, we all know two roads would be even more ridiculous.

  5. The State is in a perfect position. The consortium overpaid for leasing the toll road. Good for the State. The money they paid is being used across the State to upgrade roads and bridges and employ people at at time most of the country is scrambling to fund basic repairs. Good for the State. Indiana taxpayers are no longer subsidizing the toll roads to the tune of millions a year as we had for the last 20 years because the legislature did not have the guts to raise tolls. Good for the State. If the consortium fails, they either find another operator, acceptable to the State, to buy them out or the road gets turned back over to the State and we keep the Billions. Good for the State. Pat Bauer is no longer the Majority or Minority Leader of the House. Good for the State. Anyway you look at this, the State received billions of dollars for an assett the taxpayers were subsidizing, the State does not have to pay to maintain the road for 70 years. I am having trouble seeing the downside.

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