The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers against discrimination and workplace harassment on the basis of race, gender, religion, or national origin. Employees who have been subject to harassment or discrimination on that basis can seek compensation and other remedies under the Civil Rights Act.
However, there are limits to a person’s ability to recover for this type of harm. Most of the cases that we read and write about on this blog involve an employee being harassed or otherwise discriminated against by a direct supervisor or through a systematic process that results in discrimination. There are many other situations in which a person could be subject to harassment or discrimination, and the current application of the Civil Rights Act does not necessarily cover them all.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments next session on this issue in a case in which a woman’s coworker harassed her both verbally and physically. The woman is seeking to hold her employer (a local university) liable for the harm, but the lower court found that an employer can old be held liable if the harassment comes from a supervisor and determined that the man harassing her was not a supervisor.
The lower court’s view of a supervisor was narrower than that of the EEOC, which handles many racial harassment complaints each year. The Supreme Court will take up the question of not of whether there was harassment, but of whether the woman can recover from her employer for the harassment based on that law.
Even though an employer may not be liable for harassment by coworkers under the Civil Rights Act, there are still things that employees can do to end workplace harassment, such as registering a complaint. Each situation is different and employees should consult with an experienced employment law attorney to choose the best course of action.
Source: Bloomberg, “Supreme Court to Review Rules for Supervisor in Job-Bias Suits,” Bob Drummond, June 25, 2012.