Very quietly, over the past several years, the Supreme Court has been making it more difficult for Americans to sue businesses for class actions, retaliation and/or discrimination. The Court seems far more concerned with protecting employers from lawsuits than vindicating employees’ statutory rights. Two decisions by the Supreme Court on Monday continue this unfortunate trend.
On June 23, 2013, a sharply divided Supreme Court issued two decisions that reveal the Court is out touch with the realities of the workplace and out of touch with the realities of workplace harassment and retaliation. The Court issued University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, No. 12-484 (opinion, here) and Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556 (opinion here), two 5-4 pro-employer decisions authored by Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Anthony Kennedy, respectively. Justice Ginsburg authored two dissents that she read from the bench.
In the first case, Nassar, who is of Middle Eastern descent, alleged that the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center blocked him from getting a new job. According to Dr. Nassar, the Medical Center denied him the new job after he complained that his supervisor discriminated against him based on his race and ethnicity. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found “credible, testimonial evidence” that the Medical Center retaliated against Dr. Nassar, and a jury found that the University violated the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII. Nassar, Slip Op., Dissent at p. 4. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the jury verdict.
Supreme Court overturned the decisions of the district and appellate courts, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead of applying the same standard of proof that is used for race and gender discrimination claims, the Court adopted a more stringent standard for retaliation, which Justice Ginsburg, in her dissenting opinion, recognized “lacks sensitivity to the realities of life at work.” Nassar, Slip Op., Dissent at p. 25. The lack of sensitivity to the realities of life at work is further reflected in Justice Kennedy’s words that convey empathy for the employer and disdain for employees: “The fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation system” requires raising the standard for retaliation claims because “[i]t would be inconsistent with the structure and operation of Title VII to so raise the costs, both financial and reputational, on an employer whose actions were not in fact the result of any discriminatory or retaliatory intent.” Nassar, Slip Op., at p. 19. Moreover, the majority’s lack of concern for the financial, reputational and emotional cost of retaliatory harassment to the employee in comparison to the Courts’ desire to reduce the number of retaliation claims filed, regardless of merit, is reflected in the acceptance of the following hypothetical considered by the Court: “Consider…the case of an employee who knows that he or she is about to be fired for poor performance, given a lower pay grade, or even just transferred to a different assignment or location. To forestall that lawful action, he or she might be tempted to make an unfounded charge of racial, sexual, or religious discrimination: then when the unrelated employment action comes, the employee could allege that this is retaliation.” Nassar, Slip Op., at p. 18.
For race and gender discrimination, the Court ruled that Title VII requires an employee to show only that race or gender was one of multiple “motivating” reasons for the employer’s decision-making. Nassar, Slip Op., at p. 23. However, for a claim of retaliation, the Court ruled that the employee must show that the employer would not have made the decision “but for” its improper retaliatory motive. Id. The Court remanded the case to the trial court to apply this higher standard to Dr. Nassar’s retaliation claim.
Unfortunately, the Court’s decision to raise the burden of proof for retaliation claims is in contrast to the strong safeguards necessary to shield employees who protest discriminatory actions. These protections particularly are important since the number of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints has nearly doubled in the past 15 years from over 16,000 in 1997 to 31,000 in 2012. Nassar, Slip Op., at p. 18.
In Vance v. Ball State the Court ruled that in Title VII cases a person must be able to take “tangible employment actions against the victim, such as hiring and firing someone to be considered a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits, thereby making it harder to blame a business for a co-worker's unlawful and discriminatory behavior. Vance, Slip Op., at p. 30. Maetta Vance, the only African-American employee in the Ball State University kitchen, was exposed to racial slurs from Saundra Davis, the kitchen staff worker who gave Ms. Vance her daily work assignments.
The Court previously held that an employer is accountable under Title VII when one of its supervisors harasses an employee. In Vance, the Court ruled that Ball State was not responsible for Davis’s discriminatory conduct because Davis did not fit the Court’s narrow definition of “supervisor.” Vance, Slip Op., at p. 30. The Court’s ruling also rejected EEOC’s guidance regarding who is a supervisor. Vance, Slip Op. at pp. 20-21. The Court determined that because Davis did not have the power to make certain formal employment decisions, such as hiring, firing, or promoting, she was not a “supervisor” under Title VII, despite the fact that she controlled and supervised Ms. Vance’s day-to-day activities. Vance, Slip Op. at pp. 29-30.
Unfortunately, the Vance decision will leave employees without judicial recourse when faced with harassment by supervisors who may not have the ability to fire workers, but do have the ability to harass them in the workplace.
Both decisions show that the Court is out of touch with the realities of today’s workplace. In the real world, a coworker who assigns work, even without hiring and firing responsibility, can use that authority to make the conditions of another employees’ life miserable or unsafe because of a protected category. When there is unlawful behavior in the work place, the law should protect employees who try to make the workplace safe for everyone by reporting the situation. When there is unlawful behavior in the work place, the employer should be required either to fix the situation or be held accountable for not doing so. This is not just the reality of the workplace but this is common sense because everyone-regardless of race, gender or other-wants to work in a workplace free from harassment. Instead of ensuring justice and equality to all, the Court continues to listen to one singular voice-business. As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent, “[t]he ball is once again in Congress’ court to correct the error into which this Court has fallen, and to restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens today.”