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U.S. Supreme court takes up important sexual harassment question

Victims of sexual harassment can often obtain compensation from their employers under Maryland state law or federal law. Whether the harasser was a supervisor or a co-worker, however, can greatly affect the process and outcome of these cases.

Under federal law, when a supervisor harasses an employee, the company is automatically liable for damages in most cases. This means the employer can be sued and ordered to pay a financial award to the victim. When the harasser is a co-worker, the employer can generally only be held liable if it failed to respond to a complaint of harassment. Because of this distinction, there is often a disagreement in sexual harassment cases about whether a harasser was a supervisor or co-worker.

The U.S. Supreme Court has now taken up the question of who qualifies as a supervisor for the purposes of harassment claims. Courts currently apply different standards when deciding whether someone is a supervisor. Some have said that to be a supervisor one must have the power to hire, discipline fire and promote workers. The majority of courts have followed a broader definition that states supervisors have authority to direct daily work activities.

The case before the court involves a woman who worked for a university for about 18 years. She ultimately sued the university for subjecting her to a racially hostile work environment, arguing that one of her supervisors threatened her and made racial remarks.

A federal appeals court later threw the case out, finding that the alleged harasser was not a supervisor so the university could not be held liable.

The complainant appealed, arguing that the lower court was wrong in its definition of a supervisor.

The Supreme Court's decision in this case could have a significant effect on harassment cases, either narrowing or expanding the liability of employers.

Source: National Public Radio, "Supreme Court To Look At Who Is A 'Supervisor' in Harassment Cases," Nina Totenberg, Nov. 26, 2012

  • Our law firm in Greenbelt, Maryland, handles sexual harassment cases in addition to other employment law concerns.

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