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Outcome of Supreme Court case may change harassment law

Name calling in Florida’s workplaces may not always be just name calling. For example, if the offensive conduct involves a protected category and is pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, it could be against the law. In such event, your employer may be held accountable.

The United State Supreme Court recently agreed to hear such a case. What makes the case unique, however, is that its outcome may change the definition of supervisory liability for workplace harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The case involves the sole African-American employee in the banquet and catering department of a state university. The employee alleges she was the victim of racial harassment by her coworkers and supervisors. The employee brought a hostile work environment claim against the university, believing it should be vicariously responsible for those actions. However, both a lower court and the Seventh Circuit dismissed the claim, determining that the employee had not established a legal basis for holding the state university liable.

Under current federal law — set by U.S. Supreme Court precedents — an employer can be held vicariously liable for severe or pervasive harassment in the workplace perpetrated by an employee’s supervisor. However, those decisions stop short of providing an unambiguous definition of supervisor. Some require daily oversight of an employee’s work, whereas other courts define a supervisor as anyone with hiring or firing authority.

To be illegal, workplace harassment must result in a hostile, abusive, or intimidating work environment for the employee based on a protected category, such as race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation or disability. A variety of conduct may qualify as offensive, including comments, images or jokes targeted at an individual.

Workplace harassment can negatively affect your work performance, future opportunities for career advancement, and cause you to think about quitting a job you enjoy. If you are being harassed by a coworker or employer in the workplace because of a protected category, you may be entitled to take legal action. An attorney can review the facts of your case and determine whether you might be able to bring a claim and obtain compensation.

Source: Business Insurance, “Supreme Court to clarify what constitutes a supervisor in harassment cases,” Judy Greenwald, June 26, 2012