Washington, D.C. – The Supreme Court is having a busy week as they begin to hand down a number of much anticipated and controversial decisions this week including ruling over voter rights, marriage equality and affirmative action, but lost among the fray is a decision that will impact thousands of workers and make it more difficult for them to prove sexual harassment and discrimination and put a limit on retaliation judgments.
In two 5-4 rulings the Supreme Court decided that only people with the ability to hire or fire, demote, promote or move an employee to a different position could be considered a supervisor in harassment and discrimination cases, the New Your Times reported.
In Vance vs. Ball State University, an African-American woman, Maetta Vance alleged that her supervisor, who was white, subjected her to racial discrimination and filed a suit against the university. Both the EEOC and Ball State University agreed the supervisor in this case did not have the ability to hire or fire an employee.
The ruling rejects the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definition of supervisor, which had a broader scope, and stated that a supervisor is someone who can direct an employee’s actions and has the authority to take “tangible employment” actions.
By limiting the definition of a supervisor, employees will have a significantly higher burden of proof when pursuing their employer in discrimination and harassment cases. In these cases, an employer can only be held strictly liable for discrimination or harassment if an employee is a supervisor and not simply a co-worker.
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the decision weakens current employments laws and the majority opinion, majority opinion “is blind to the realities of the workplace.” Justice Ginsburg, who specialized in sexual discrimination cases when she was a practicing lawyer, also said that is not easy for an employee to tell their harasser to “buzz off,” even if they don’t have the power to demote or fire them, according to a New York Times report.
In another blow to employment discrimination laws, the Supreme Court ruled that in retaliation lawsuits, the plaintiff’s must be able to prove that their dismissal was exclusively due to illegal retaliation alone and not a combination of several different reasons.
The second case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, involved Dr. Naiel Nassar, who is of Middle-Eastern decent, and alleged that one of his supervisors at the university made derogatory statements about Middle-easterners and subjected him to bias.
Dr. Nassar then decided to take a job with a local hospital as a physician, but the hospital withdrew the offer after discovering Dr. Nassar’s discrimination allegations. He then sued the hospital alleging illegal retaliation and sued the hospital for back pay and lost wages.
Justice Kennedy said the judgment could not stand because Nassar did not sufficiently prove that illegal retaliation was the sole motivating factor in the hospital’s decision to withdraw its job offer, the Los Angeles Times reported.
These two decisions will make it harder for employees bring forth harassment and discrimination lawsuit against their employers in the future.
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg said the tougher “but-for causation standard” the court adopted for retaliation cases would deteriorate efforts to fight employment discrimination.