Supreme Court

The Supreme Court had some good news for employers in two rulings this week.  

The first tightened the legal definition of supervisor under anti-bias law — which makes it more difficult for employees to prove they’ve been victims of workplace discrimination. The second narrows the grounds for employees suing for retaliation under federal bias laws.

Here’s a look at the two cases:

The retaliation case was University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. v. Nassar,

Naiel Nassar, a physician of Middle Eastern descent, served both as a University of Texas faculty member and a staff physician at Parkland Hospital. He claimed that Dr. Levine, one of his supervi­sors at the university, was biased against him on account of his reli­gion and ethnic heritage.

Nassar complained to Dr. Fitz, Levine’s super­visor. But after he arranged to continue working at the hospital without also being on the university’s faculty, he resigned his teach­ing post and sent a letter to Fitz and others, stating that he was leav­ing because of Levine’s harassment.

Fitz, upset at Levine’s public humiliation and wanting public exoneration for her, objected to the hospital’s job offer, which was then withdrawn.

Nassar then sued, alleging that Levine’s racially and religiously motivated harassment had resulted in his constructive discharge from the university, and he claimed that Fitz’s efforts to prevent the hospital from hiring him were in retaliation for complaining about Levine’s harassment.

A lower court tossed the constructive discharge claim, but agreed that Fitz was motivated, at least in part, to retaliate against Nassar for his complaints about Levine.

It was the “at least in part” phrase that was at issue before the Supreme Court. The justices ruled that retaliation claims must be proven using a “but-for” standard.

In the words of the court, a successful retaliation suit “requires proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer.” In other words, the intent to retaliate can’t be just one motivating factor — it has to be the overriding reason the employer took the steps it did.

Definition of ‘supervisor’ sharpened

The other case, Vance v. Ball State University, involved Maetta Vance, who was the only black employee in the catering department of Ball State University in Indiana.

Vance claimed her co-workers harassed her on account of he being black, using racial epithets, referring to the Ku Klux Klan, making veiled threats of physical harm.

One of those co-workers was a woman named Sandra Davis, whom Vance identified as her supervisor.

Vance filed bias and harassment charges. A federal appeals court in Chicago dismissed her lawsuit because, the judges ruled, Davis didn’t fit the  definition of a supervisor — she didn’t have the power to hire, fire, demote or discipline Vance. That meant Ball State couldn’t be held liable.

The problem: Other circuits across the country have taken a far broader view of what constitutes a supervisor. Those jurisdictions have ruled that a boss is anybody with the power to direct an employee’s daily activities.

That was the question before the Supreme Court. And in a split decision, the court ruled that in harassment cases, only those employees with the power to take “tangible employment actions” qualify as supervisors. Those tangible actions include such things as firing, demotions, pay cuts or reassignments.

Why’s this ruling significant for employers?

Under the law, an employer is liable for the behavior of a supervisor who’s guilty of discrimination or harassment.

But if a worker discriminates against or harasses a co-worker, the employer is not at fault — unless the behavior was reported and the employer failed to act to address it.








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