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United States Supreme Court Issues Two Significant Decisions Affecting Employee Rights

United States Supreme Court Issues Two Significant Decisions Affecting Employee Rights

Date Published: 2013-06-26

On June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued two significant employment law decisions which could have far reaching ramifications affecting employee rights.

In Vance v. Ball State University (citation omitted), a race discrimination case, the Supreme Court determined that in order for a person to qualify as a supervisor the person had to have the authority to take a tangible employment action against an employee.  Tangible employment actions include the ability to hire, fire, reassign and discipline an employee.  In so ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”)[1] longstanding guidance which provides that a person can be a supervisor even though the person does not have the ultimate authority to take a tangible employment action against an employee.  For example, under the EEOC’s guidance a coworker who directed an employee’s work could be a supervisor.

Why is the decision in Vance significant?  Because an employer is generally not vicariously liable for the unlawful discrimination committed by a nonsupervisor, but an employer can be vicariously liable for unlawful discrimination against an employee committed by a supervisor.  In Vance, the person who was accused of discriminating against Vance was not a supervisor based upon the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Therefore, Vance’s employer could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of Vance’s coworker based upon the theory that an employer is liable for the acts of its supervisors.

Next up, the Supreme Court ruled in University of Texas Southern Medical Center v. Nassar (citation omitted) that in order for an employee to succeed on a claim for unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended in 1991 (“Title VII”), an employee must show that the retaliation occurred because the employee exercised a protected right under Title VII instead of the retaliatory act being a “motivating factor.”  Protected activities include: 1) making a claim of harassment, 2) participating in a workplace harassment investigation as a witness, or 3) objecting to an employer’s practice the employee believes to be unlawful under Title VII.  The “because of” test is also referred to as the “but for causation” test, i.e. the retaliation would not have occurred but for the employee asserting a protected right under Title VII.

Why is the decision in Nassar significant?  Because the “because of” standard is a much higher burden of proof than having to prove that the employee’s complaint of harassment was a “motivating factor” that culminated in the employee’s employer taking a tangible adverse action against the employee.  The “motivating factor” concept was codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1991 making it clear that an employee could succeed on the merits in a status-based discrimination claim if the employee could show that the unlawful discrimination was a “motivating factor” that caused the employer to take the tangible adverse employment action against an employee.  Until the Supreme Court’s decision in Nassar, the EEOC applied the “motivating factor” standard to retaliation claims as well as status-based discrimination claims.  Status-based discrimination is discrimination based on one’s race, color, religion, sex and national origin under Title VII.  While the “motivating factor” test is viable in status-based discrimination cases, it is no longer viable in a retaliation case.

There is no doubt about the fact that these two Supreme Court decisions in Vance and Nassar favor employers.

A note to the reader:  This article is intended to provide general information and is not intended to be a substitute for competent legal advice.  Competent legal counsel should be consulted if you have questions regarding compliance with the law. 

Questions regarding this article or past articles may be e-mailed to Christina Harris Schwinn at christinaschwinn@paveselaw.com.  To view past articles written by Ms. Schwinn please visit the firm’s website at www.paveselaw.com.  Ms. Schwinn is a partner and an experienced employment and real estate attorney with the Pavese Law Firm, 1833 Hendry Street, Fort Myers, FL 33901; Telephone:  (239) 336-6228; Telecopier:  (239) 332-2243.

[1] The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for the enforcement of employee rights under Title VII.