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Employment Law Alert – Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Employers


Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Employers

On June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in Vance v. Ball State University, made it harder for employees to sue their employers for discrimination and harassment in the workplace, ruling against a catering assistant at Indiana University who claimed that she was discriminated against by the cafeteria manager on the basis of race. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that Maetta Vance, who is black, could not sue Ball State University over the alleged taunts and threats made by a white colleague (Shaundra Davis) who Vance considered to be her supervisor. Vance argued that the University was liable since Davis was her supervisor. The Court ruled that since (1) the person who taunted Vance had no authority to fire; and (2) the University had taken corrective action, the employer was not liable for Davis’ actions. The Court held that for the University to be liable, Davis must have had the authority to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” Vance. “We hold that an employee is a ‘supervisor’ for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.” “Because there is no evidence that BSU empowered [Davis] to take any tangible employment action against Vance,” her lawsuit was dismissed.

The U.S. Supreme Court also addressed the legal standard for proving a retaliation claim in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. In a 5-4 decision, the Court clarified that an employee alleging unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must prove that a retaliatory motive was the “but for” cause of an adverse employment action. While an employee claiming discrimination can prevail by showing that bias was a “motivating factor” in an employment decision, an employee claiming retaliation must meet the higher burden of proving that the employer would not have taken the challenged action if the employee had not engaged in a prohibited activity.

The Court’s ruling will make it more difficult for employees to prevail on Title VII retaliation claims. An employee alleging retaliation now must prove that an impermissible, retaliatory motive was the reason, not simply a reason, for the employer’s action. The burden of proof never shifts to the employer. The Court acknowledged that the “but for” standard will make it more likely that “dubious” claims will be dismissed at the summary judgment stage.  By: Claire Saady

Claire Saady is a partner in Saady & Saxe, P.A., and concentrates her practice in the area of employment law. She can be reached online or 813-909-8855.  

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