Editorial: Pro-business high court stiffs workers by limiting discrimination suits

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2013 - 8:14 am

Think about where you work: A bigoted boss could make your life miserable, giving you the worst assignments and harassing you.

But according to the conservative majority on the nation's highest court, if that racist or sexist superior can't officially demote or fire you, you can't sue the business for discrimination.

The 5-4 decision Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court ignores what happens in workplaces in real life and wrongly limits the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the minority opinion, has it correct: Congress must overturn the court and restore these essential protections for employees.

That's not likely to happen with the Republican-controlled House beholden to big business. So it will likely be another fight for the 2014 congressional elections.

Court observers had been more focused Monday on a potential landmark case involving affirmative action in college admissions. But instead of a sweeping decision that barred the use of race, the justices produced a narrow ruling that, for now, leaves intact a 2003 Supreme Court opinion allowing race to be used as one factor in selecting students. The employment law ruling will likely have more immediate impact on Americans' lives.

In the late 1990s, the high court had ruled that an employer could be liable if a supervisor discriminates against a worker. If a co-worker discriminates, however, the company is culpable only if it is negligent in responding to a victim's complaint about working conditions.

The case decided Monday hinged on that definition of a supervisor. Maetta Vance, a catering specialist at Ball State University in Indiana, accused a superior of racial harassment and retaliation. Since that co-worker had the power to control her daily activities and evaluate her performance, Vance's lawyers said that person was her supervisor.

The university, however, argued that to be a supervisor, that person must be able to hire, fire, reassign or fail to promote an employee. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, adopted the university's rule.

The same 5-4 majority on the court also ruled for employers in a second case that will make it more difficult for workers to sue. This opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento, says that workers must prove that the only reason their employers retaliated against them is because they had filed a discrimination complaint.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups celebrated the rulings, claiming they will cut down on frivolous lawsuits – as if people can't wait to put themselves through the expense and stress of going to court.

To critics, Monday's decisions are the latest to roll back hard-won civil rights and to favor corporations, which are already squeezing workers on pay and benefits.

This could be a very consequential week for some fundamental rights of Americans, with major rulings on voting rights and same-sex marriage still to come. On these first cases, the high court is not off to a promising start.

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