Supreme Court Redefines Workplace Discrimination

By Chris Hoenig


The Supreme Court, in a pair of decisions handed down on Monday, narrowed the rules and definitions for bringing lawsuits based on workplace discrimination.

In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices restricted the definition of a supervisor to someone with direct hiring and firing powers and the authority to prevent someone from being promoted, regardless of how the relationship is perceived in the workplace. The case, Vance v. Ball State University, centered on Maetta Vance, a Black woman who said she had been harassed and subjected to racial slurs during her time as a caterer at the college. Vance identified the tormenter as her supervisor, making the university directly liable for the discrimination.

The court ruled, however, that the harasser did not have the ability to “injure” Vance’s employment with the university (by hiring, firing or preventing a promotion), making that person a co-worker instead of a supervisor. The university, and any other workplace, is held liable in discrimination lawsuits only if the person being harassed notifies the employer of the discrimination and nothing is done to stop it. Because of that, the Supreme Court’s ruling dismisses the lawsuit against the school.

In the second case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the justices set limitations on what juries can consider and award in discrimination cases. The decision, also by a 5-to-4 margin, essentially divides workplace-discrimination lawsuits into two categories: “status-based discrimination,” which protects employees against direct racial, religious, gender and ethnic discrimination in cases of hiring, firing, salary, promotion and other similar circumstances; and “employer retaliation,” which separates lawsuits brought by employees who claim to have had their employment “injured” on account of having opposed, complained of, or sought remedies for workplace discrimination.

Under the separation, employer-retaliation cases need to show a direct link between the complaints or actions of the employee and retaliatory actions of the employer that are so close that the employer’s moves would not have happened but for the employee’s. Status-based cases only need to show that discrimination is one of the employer’s motives, even if there are other, lawful motives that played into their decision.

In the case before the court, Dr. Naiel Nassar claimed that the medical center withdrew a job offer after the offer was opposed by a university supervisor whom Nassar had lodged discrimination complaints against. A jury, which was told that it only had to find that retaliation was a motivating factor in the decision, awarded Nassar $3 million in damages. The ruling from the justices says that the jury should have been informed that it had to decide whether retaliation was the “but-for” reason in the supervisor’s actions, and sent the case back to the lower court.

These decisions by the court are likely to limit the number and scope of workplace-discrimination lawsuits brought by employees.

Latest News

AIG Lynn Oldfield Named CEO of the Year

Lynn Oldfield Named CEO of the Year at Insurance Business Canada Awards  Lynn Oldfield, President and CEO of AIG Canada, was recently named CEO of the year at the Insurance Business Canada awards, in recognition of her “exceptional leadership” and other criteria in excellence. “This award is a reflection of…

EY Crosses Milestone to Help Clients Deploy SAP on Microsoft Azure with Strategy and Solution Initiatives

Originally posted on EY.com EY framework addresses customers’ enterprise technology and strategy for long-term value from transformation EY digital delivery platform offers up to 70% savings in migration More large enterprises seek to accelerate innovation and increase agility across their business by migrating their mission-critical SAP-based processes to the cloud….

Toyota Releases 2019 North American Environmental Report

Originally published on pressroom.toyota.com. Toyota is committed to supporting and fostering a more inclusive and sustainable society. To achieve that goal, the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050 was developed to address major environmental issues facing the global community, such as climate change, water scarcity, resource depletion and habitat loss. Based on…

Cigna Ventures Invests in two Breakthrough Companies to Accelerate Digital Health Innovation and Connect Customers to Care Anywhere, Anytine

Originally posted on Cigna.com New partnerships further Cigna’s strategy to connect customers to care everywhere and meet them where they are – at home, at work, on the go Innovative solutions will continue making health care affordable, predictable and simpl Cigna Ventures, a strategic corporate venture capital partner and a…