Supreme Court rulings favor employers in retaliation, discrimination cases

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC Update | July 1, 2013

By Michael F. Lauderdale

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued two decisions that will make it more difficult for employees to pursue various employment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The major decision was in the University of Texas Medical Center v. Nassar, which clarified the burden of proof in retaliation claims under Title VII. In Nassar, the court held that an employee must now prove that the employer would not have taken the adverse employment action but for an improper motive. Basically, an employee alleging retaliation must prove that an impermissible, retaliatory motive was the reason, not simply a reason for the employer’s decisions. This decision will make it much more difficult for employees to prevail on Title VII retaliation claims. Based on the Nassar decision, it appears that the mixed-motive rationale for Title VII retaliation claims no longer exists.

In another important decision, the Supreme Court clarified the definition of “supervisor” under Title VII. In Vance v. Ball State University, the court determined that a supervisor is defined as someone who could “undertake or effectively recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the alleged victim of harassment or discrimination.” The court further explained that this was an individual who could make a “significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significant different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” This definition was in direct contradiction of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) definition of supervisor and various other prior court rulings. The court’s holding narrows the scope of an employer’s vicarious liability for workplace harassment under Title VII. If a supervisor engages in illegal harassment, an employer is strictly liable. However, if harassment is perpetrated by a non-supervisor, such as a co-worker, the employer will only be liable where it was negligent in discovering or remedying the harassment, which is a much more difficult burden of proof for an employee.

Now is a good time to review job descriptions to make sure that they accurately reflect an employee’s job duties and responsibilities. In addition, it is advisable that employers should review the various job positions and determine who within the company has the authority to be a supervisor and to clarify those that do not.