Vance v. Ball State: the press miscoverage begins

by Walter Olson on June 25, 2013

There’s an awful lot of — well, confusion is one way to put it — in the early commentary on yesterday’s Supreme Court case Vance v. Ball State, on the scope of supervisorial liability in harassment cases. Here’s Jeffrey Toobin writing in The New Yorker:

As in Ledbetter, it was a vote of five-to-four, with the Republican appointees in the majority and the Democratic appointees in dissent. In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court narrowed the definition of “supervisor.” This is important because plaintiffs can win in Title VII cases only if they suffer discrimination from a supervisor, not from a peer in the workforce.

If “discrimination” is read to include “harassment,” as the law does in fact read it, this is simply untrue. Here is the second sentence of the syllabus of Vance (which is word-for-word identical with the third sentence of Justice Alito’s majority opinion):

If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions.

And here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on page 4 of her dissent stating the same standard, unchanged by the opinion:

if the harassing employee is a co-worker, a negligence standard applies. To satisfy that standard, the complainant must show that the employer knew or should have known of the offensive conduct but failed to take appropriate corrective action.

There are many miles of difference between “you can’t win,” which is how Toobin chooses to summarize the current right to seek damages for co-worker misconduct, and “you can win but you need to show employer negligence,” the more accurate way to summarize it.

Nor is Toobin the only one to make this mistake. An error-strewn U.K. Guardian opinion story reacting to the case asserts (to quote its subheadline) that “the US supreme court has ruled that job harassment only counts if it’s from a ‘supervisor’.” That’s flatly untrue, for the reasons above. Author Jason Farago also swallows whole the sharply disputed contentions of misconduct leveled by the plaintiff in the Ball State case, although no level of the court system appears to have done so; a trial court found Vance’s treatment “neither sufficiently severe nor pervasive to be considered objectively hostile for the purposes of Title VII” and neither the Seventh Circuit nor the Supreme Court elected to reach that issue. Indeed, Justice Ruth Ginsburg in her dissent chooses to illustrate the feared impact of the new rule by reciting details of other cases that could be affected, as opposed to Vance’s.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to stay on top of the details of a law as complex as Title VII, and we all make honest mistakes. But when given the choice between risking dullness by accurately describing the actual state of the law, and embellishing a tale of conservative insensitivity so as to inflame their left-leaning readers, Toobin and Farago appear to have a head start on that old bit of advice, “print the legend.”

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{ 2 comments }

1 John Steele 06.26.13 at 12:12 am

Walter, what struck me was the difference between the clarity of the lawyer-written blogs and the alarmism of most professor blogs and major media. But, to its credit, the Workplace Prof Blog noted, “Thus, the Court [SCOTUS] reaffirmed the agency principles it had adopted in Farragher and Ellerth.” For a succinct summary of the case from a working lawyer’s point of view, try the Porter Wright blog.

2 Walter Olson 06.26.13 at 8:18 pm

Porter Wright blog, by Sara Hutchins Jodka, here.

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