U.S. Supreme Court Issues Two Employment Decisions Today

In Vance v. Ball State University et al. (USSCT 2013), the Court ruled on employer liability for harassment by a supervisor under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, an employer may be liable for a supervisor’s harassment of an employee if that harassment results in a tangible employment action (i.e., a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, etc.). However, if the harassment stems from the actions of a co-worker, then the employer is only liable if they are negligent in controlling working conditions. 

Vance, an African American female, alleged that another employee at Ball State University was a supervisor who created a racially hostile work environment. The Court ruled that the other employee was a co-worker and not a supervisor for employer liability purposes because she did not have the power to take a tangible employment action against Vance. A supervisor, the Court stated, must have authority to do more than just assign daily tasks. In so ruling, the Court rejected guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the definition of a supervisor. 

This decision provides a framework for determining whether employees are supervisors or merely co-workers with authority to assign tasks, and should help clarify liability for employers going forward.

In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (USSCT 2013), the Court held that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved applying traditional principles of but-for causation, not the lessened motivating-factor causation test used in discrimination claims. 

Texas Southwestern Medical Center (TSMC) is part of the University of Texas system. It has an affiliation agreement with Parkland Memorial Hospital (PMH), which requires PMH to offer vacant staff physician posts to University faculty members. Nassar, a physician of Middle Eastern descent who was both a University faculty member and a Hospital staff physician, claimed that one of his supervisors, Dr. Levine, was biased against him due to his religion and ethnic heritage. He complained to Dr. Fitz, Levine’s supervisor, but then resigned, sending a letter to Fitz and others stating that he was leaving because of Levine’s harassment. Embarrassed by the letter, Fitz objected to PMH’s job offer to Nassar and it was withdrawn. Nassar sued claiming that Fitz’s efforts to prevent PMH from hiring him were retaliation for complaining about Levine’s harassment.

The Court’s decision was based on the fact that Congress used different language in drafting the anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII. The Court said that properly interpreting the causation standard was important to the “fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems” because of the increasing number of retaliation claims being made. And, the Court said, “[l]essening the causation standard could also contribute to the filing of frivolous claims, siphoning resources from efforts by employers, agencies, and courts to combat workplace harassment.”

This decision is also good for employers as the Court chose the higher of the two causation standards to be used in proving retaliation claims.