The United States Supreme Court issued two decisions yesterday that adversely impact Plaintiffs in an already difficult employment law field. The first, in the case of Vance v. Ball State University, focused on how to define the term “supervisor”, which under Title VII of the Civil Rights act is significant. The Court determined that to be considered a supervisor, and therefore to make it easier for a victim employee to succeed in an employment discrimination case, the individual must have the power to change or modify the victim's job, including powers to terminate, demote or reassign. This is significant, because we frequently see instances of a supervisor harassing a subordinate, often where the supervisor is one or two steps up the ladder, and therefore has the power to delegate and assign tasks, but not the direct power to terminate employment. It seems that according to the Vance holding, that lower level supervisor may now not actually qualify as a “supervisor” under the law.
The Vance decision makes it all the more important for employees to follow a key piece of advice: if the employer has a procedure for reporting complaints, it must be followed. The failure to do so could destroy a potentially strong case of harassment or employment discrimination.
The second case, Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, related to the legal standard in Title VII retaliation lawsuits. Once again the Court made things more difficult for Plaintiffs in employment retaliation cases, this time by holding that in order to succeed in a retaliation case the employee must show that the only reason for the termination. This changed the standard, which had required that the employee only show that retaliation was a motivating factor in the termination, and this new “but for” standard makes it nearly impossible to succeed on retaliation claims, as employers can nearly always come up with some “legitimate” reason for the termination.
These two cases make clear that the Supreme Court will not be doing any favors for victims of employment discrimination. They also make clear that victims need to continue fighting, in the courts and with their elected officials, to try and work towards stomping out workplace discrimination.
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