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The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that an employer can only be held responsible for workplace sexual or racial harassment if the perpetrator is the victim's supervisor or manager.
In a decision that the court's liberal minority branded a setback for workers' rights, the court ruled against a complaint brought by a black woman from Indiana that she had been racially abused by a white co-worker.
The ruling effectively confirmed that an employer, in this case Ball State University, cannot be held liable for the behavior of someone who demeans a colleague of the same status in the workplace hierarchy.
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito, that in order for a plaintiff to hold his or her employer responsible, the harasser must be a supervisor" or a person must be able to take "tangible employment action.
This means someone able to make a "change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits."
The case was brought by Maetta Vance, who worked for the catering department of Ball State University and alleged that her colleague Saundra Davis had "made her life hell" through workplace threats and racial abuse.
Pleading the case before the court last year, her lawyer had argued that Davis had been a de facto superior in the workplace, giving orders and assigning Vance demeaning or unpleasant tasks like cleaning toilets.
The court was split over the ruling, and the liberal minority expressed concern that it would "hinder efforts to stamp out discrimination in the workplace because supervisors are comparatively few and employees are many."
But the majority decision disputed this, arguing: "This approach will not leave employees unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks.
"In such cases, a victim can prevail simply by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur."