U.S. Supreme Court Helps Employers Fend Off Retaliation and Harrassment Claims

In late June, the United States Supreme Court issued two opinions that, among other things, will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to assert federal retaliation and harassment claims against their employers.

Vance v. Ball State University

The issue before the Court in Vance was who is a supervisor for purposes of Title VIIharassment claims. The question is important because different rules apply depending on whether the harasser is the plaintiff’s “supervisor,” in which case the employer can be automatically liable for the supervisor’s conduct. If the harasser is merely a co-worker, the employer generally will only be liable if it failed to take reasonable steps to prevent or correct the harassing behavior. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Vance, there was no agreement mong lower courts regarding who qualifies as a “supervisor.”

Noting that in most modern organizations employees have “overlapping authority with respect to the assignment of work tasks,” the Court refused to define “supervisors” as those who have authority to assign work, as some lower courts had done. Instead, the Court adopted a more demanding test and defined a “supervisor” as an employee who is empowered “to take tangible employment actions against the victim,” i.e., to effect a “significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”

The Court’s decision is significant because it not only provides a standard that judges and juries can easily apply, but also one that offers a clear guide to employers in their harassment prevention, monitoring and training efforts.

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

The question before the Supreme Court in Nassar was whether the lower courts had applied the correct standard for proving a case of retaliation under Title VII. In a retaliation claim, an employer may be held liable for retaliating against an employee who has engaged in activity that is protected by Title VII, such as complaining about discrimination. The plaintiff in Nassar argued that he only needed to show that his protected activity was a “motivating” or“substantial” factor in his discharge, even if it was not the only factor. The defendant, on the other hand, argued that the plaintiff had to show that his protected activity was the sole reason for his discharge, and that but for the plaintiff’s protected activity, his discharge would not have occurred. Focusing on the statutory language in Title VII’s retaliation provision, the Court concluded that the more stringent “but for” causation test advocated by the defendant should apply to Title VII retaliation claims.

The Court noted that retaliation claims are being made with increasing frequency, and the number of such claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has nearly doubled in the past 15 years to more than 31,000 in 2012. It reasoned that allowing courts to apply a more lenient standard than the one it adopted would “contribute to the filing of frivolous claims, which would siphon resources from efforts by employers, administrative agencies and courts to combat workplace harassment.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in Nassar is important because, in addition to deterring employees from making frivolous retaliation claims, it enables employers to take legitimate action against an employee, such as discipline, demotion, or discharge, with considerably less concern that it could still be deemed liable for retaliation. The decision is also significant because, under the previous less stringent test, retaliation claims often survived attempts to achieve a pre-trial dismissal, even though the employee’s underlying claim of discrimination was rejected.

For More Information

If you have questions about these cases or are concerned about harassment or retaliation claims by employees, contact Joseph P. Hofmann at 717.399.6643 or the Stevens & Lee attorney with whom you normally consult regarding labor and employment issues.

This News Alert has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be construed as, and does not constitute, legal advice on any specific matter. For more information, please see the disclaimer.