U.S. Supreme Court Decisions Include Two Big Wins for Employers

Two long-awaited U.S. Supreme Court decisions have come down that have an impact on employment law. The first involves the question of who is and who is not a supervisor, which is an important distinction in the determination of employer liability for harassment claims, while the second involves the standard of proof in retaliation cases. The decisions are big wins for employers.

Supreme Court Solidifies Definition of “Supervisor,” Narrows Employer Liability Under Title VII

You may remember this blog post back in November discussing the split of opinion among the Circuit Courts of Appeal regarding the definition of “supervisor” for purposes of harassment claims brought pursuant to Title VII. On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Vance v. Ball State University. The Court, in a 5-4 decision, found that to hold an employer vicariously liable for the harassing conduct of one of its supervisors, that supervisor must have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee. In doing so, the Court rejected the broad definition that a supervisor is an employee who merely directs and oversees another employee’s work, and effectively narrowed employer liability under Title VII.

The definition of supervisor has become so important because the Supreme Court has previously held that if a supervisor harasses another employee, the employer is automatically liable for that supervisor’s harassing conduct. An employer, however, is not liable for the harassing conduct of a mere coworker, unless the employer was negligent in allowing the conduct to occur. Thus, whether an employee is a supervisor has a significant effect on whether the employer will be vicariously liable for the alleged harassing conduct.

In Vance, Maetta Vance was the only African American employee in the catering department at Ball State University. After 18 years in the catering department and after filing numerous complaints alleging harassment on the basis of race by her co-workers, Vance filed a lawsuit against the university. In that lawsuit, Vance alleged that Saundra Davis, a white co-worker, harassed her on the basis of her race in violation of Title VII. Vance’s case turned on whether Davis was her supervisor. Ultimately, the District Court held that Davis was not Vance’s supervisor because she did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline her. Vance filed an appeal with the Seventh Circuit and it agreed with the District Court. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Seventh Circuit holding that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment “only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim,” including “hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”

Using the Supreme Court’s definition of supervisor, employers can now easily identify employees as supervisors and offer them training to avoid automatic liability for harassment under Title VII. Furthermore, this decision will provide strong support for employers defending against vicarious liability from claims of harassment by their employees under Title VII.

Supreme Court Holds Higher “But For” Standard of Proof Applies in Retaliation Cases, Makes it More Difficult for Plaintiffs to Prove Cases

In an April 2013 blog post, Supreme Court cases with a potential impact on employment law were discussed. On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its decision in one of those cases: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. And, it is another big win for employers. In another 5-4 decision, the Court rejected the lower standard of proof of a “motivating factor,” which governs Title VII discrimination claims, and opted for the higher “but for” standard for Title VII retaliation claims. Under the motivating factor standard, plaintiffs need to show that the improper motive was a motivating factor among many factors. Under the higher “but for” standard of proof, however, plaintiffs must show that the employer would not have taken an adverse employment action but for an improper motive. As a result, it will be more difficult for plaintiffs to succeed on retaliation claims under Title VII.

In Nassar, Dr. Naiel Nassar, a medical doctor of Middle Eastern descent who was both a University faculty member and a Hospital staff physician, alleged that the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center retaliated against him for complaining of alleged harassment by one of his supervisors at the University. At trial, the jury was instructed that retaliation claims, like discrimination claims, require only a showing that retaliation was a motivating factor for the adverse action, rather than the but for cause. The jury returned a verdict for Dr. Nassar and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the Fifth Circuit.

The Court held that retaliation claims must be proved according to the traditional principles of but for causation, not the lessened motivating factor test. The Court noted that the higher standard may stop the “ever-increasing frequency” of retaliation cases, particularly those “frivolous claims” which “siphon resources from efforts by employer, administrative agencies, and courts to combat workplace harassment.”