SCOTUS Decisions Quietly Alter the Employment Landscape

While the Voting Rights and DOMA were grabbing the limelight, the Supreme Court was giving greater protection to employers in harassment and retaliation claims.

The US Supreme Court decided several cases at the end of this year’s term that affect the rights of employees and employers when disputes arise between them. The cases were University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nasser, Vance v. Ball State University, and US v. Windsor. The Windsor decision was discussed in my last post, so today we focus on the effects of the first two.

Nasser addresses the standard to which an employer will be held in retaliation claims. This case is seen as a victory for employers and also ends a divide between the circuit courts, setting one standard that’s now applicable to everyone. The standard is clear in the court’s determination. For an employee to succeed against an employer in a retaliation suit, the employee must show that the employer’s main reason for taking the steps complained of was an overriding desire for retaliation.

This is a much more difficult standard for a plaintiff to reach. Previously in some appellate circuits, retaliation only had to be one of several reasons that an employer acted in the way it did. This new standard should reduce the number of retaliation suits because the bar is set at a much higher level.

The Vance case addressed the simple question of who’s the boss. Whether the offending employee is a supervisor determines if the employer is going to be held liable in a harassment suit. The Supreme Court has now created a standard for determining who is a supervisor; previously, appellate level courts had widely divergent definitions of who is a “supervisor, and subjected employers to different standards depending upon where the case was filed. While there was no question in the Paula Deen lawsuit as to who was the boss, in other organizations the lines weren’t drawn as clearly.

The Supreme Court again raised the bar and gave greater protection to employers in harassment suits. A supervisor is now defined as a person who has the power to hire, fire, demote, or discipline another employee. This is a much higher definition/standard than some appellate courts had applied in similar cases, where a supervisor was anyone who had authority to direct another employee’s daily activities.

This reduces an employer’s potential liability because if a supervisor harasses an employee, the employer is liable for the supervisor’s actions. In the wake of Vance, however, if another employee who’s simply in a senior position discriminates or harasses a coworker then an employer is not liable unless the behavior is reported and the employer failed to act. The new standard protects an employer from being liable for unknown acts of the non-supervisorial employee.

The upshot of these two cases is to bring more predictability and rationality to employee relations, and a clearer path to deciding who’s liable when relations turn sour.

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