In two major rulings issued this past Monday, the United States Supreme Court made it significantly more difficult for American employees to sue their employers for discrimination and retaliation.
A bitterly divided Court held that, in order for an employee to prevail on a discrimination claim, the person must show that the discrimination was either committed by, or condoned, by a "supervisor." The controversial aspect of the Court's ruling is that it now defines supervisor to mean a person with hiring or firing authority. In the first case, Maetta Vance, a catering specialist with Ball State University, accused her co-worker Shaundra Davis of racial harassment and retaliation. Vance sued the university under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 claiming the university was liable since Davis was her supervisor. The Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the Court, Justice Samuel Alito stated that in order to be a "supervisor," a person must have the authority to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline."
In rendering this definition of "supervisor," the Court rejected the argument that a supervisor should be defined as anyone with day-to-day oversight of an employee's activities. Commenting on the Court's ruling, Pennsylvania State University law professor Michael Foreman stated that the Court's decision does not "reflect realities of the workplace." Another law professor, Carolyn Shapiro of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law commented that the Court's ruling "reduces the incentives for employers to police harassment."
In a second case, a medical doctor sued the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center alleging discrimination and retaliation. His retaliation claim was based upon the fact that a hospital that had extended him an employment opportunity withdrew the offer after a former supervisor of the doctor opposed it. The doctor sued for retaliation claiming the hospital withdrew the employment offer in the face of pressure from the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center. Although a jury awarded the doctor more that $3 million, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the jury verdict by finding that in order to prevail on a retaliation claim, an employee must now "establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer." This ruling significantly increases the amount of proof an employee must show to prevail on retaliation.
Not every judge on the Supreme Court was pleased with these two controversial decisions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the Supreme Court "relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ." Commenting on the retaliation ruling, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Court was motivated by "a zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims filed against employers." Expressing her frustration, Justice Ginsburg, in an unusual pronouncement, urged Congress to pass legislation overriding the Court's decision.