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.

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