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Landmark Supreme Court Decisions Favoring Employers

2019-01-09 08:55:44

The United States Supreme Court issued ground-breaking decisions today that provide new limits on discrimination and retaliation lawsuits against employers.  A sharply divided Court, in two 5-4 decisions, narrowed the definition of a "supervisor" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and issued a tougher standard to prevail on Title VII retaliation claims.

Under Title VII, an employer's liability for workplace harassment may depend on the status of the harasser.  If the harassing employee is the victim's co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. If the alleged harasser is a supervisor and the harassment results in a tangible employment action (i.e. a demotion, failure to promote, termination, etc.), the employer is strictly liable for the harassment.

Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer Ball State University (BSU), alleging racial harassment by her co-worker, Saundra Davis, in violation of Title VII.  Vance claimed that Davis was her "supervisor" because Davis was above Vance in employment status and could assign tasks, alter schedules and did not have to clock in/out like other employees (although she was still paid an hourly wage).  Today the Supreme Court held that Davis was not Vance's supervisor under Title VII.  As Justice Samuel Alito explained:

The ability to direct another employee's tasks is simply not sufficient. Employees with such powers are certainly capable of creating intolerable work environments, but so are many other co-workers. Negligence provides the better framework for evaluating an employer's liability when a harassing employee lacks the power to take tangible employment actions.

In the other case, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center appealed a jury verdict in favor of former employee Dr. Naiel Nassar.  Nassar claimed that the Medical Center retaliated against him for his discrimination complaints when his Medical Center supervisor encouraged another hospital to withdraw Nassar's job offer.   The judge instructed the jury that they only had to find the retaliation was a "motivating factor" in the supervisor's action, the mixed-motive standard. The jury awarded Nassar $3.4 million in damages.

The Medical Center appealed, arguing that judge should have instructed the jury that it had to find that the supervisor's action would not have occurred "but-for" the supervisor's desire to retaliate for Nassar's previous discrimination complaints.  The Supreme Court agreed.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, held that an employee "must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer."  Therefore, for an employee to prevail on a retaliation claim they must show that the only motivating factor was retaliation for the protected activity.

These cases are good news for employers; however, some of the Justices and many pro-employee organizations are already appealing to Congress to amend Title VII to vacate these rulings.  Allen Norton & Blue will keep you updated on any developments.

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