Supreme Court makes it harder for workers to win discrimination lawsuits
The Supreme Court issued a pair of 5-to-4 rulings on workers' lawsuits. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissent in both cases calling for Congress to overturn the decisions by passing new legislation.
The US Supreme Court handed down two important decisions Monday that will make it harder for workers to mount and win discrimination lawsuits against their employers.Skip to next paragraph
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In a pair of 5-to-4 decisions, the justices embraced a narrow definition of who qualifies as a supervisor for purposes of federal discrimination law, and the court endorsed a tough standard in cases where a worker claims to be the victim of retaliation after complaining of unlawful discrimination.
The majority justices said the narrow standards would be easier for courts to administer and that other safeguards were available to protect workers.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissent in both cases calling for Congress to overturn the decisions by passing new legislation.
“Congress has, in the recent past, intervened to correct this Court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII,” she wrote, referring to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act in 2009 overturning a 2007 high court decision.
“The ball is once again in Congress’ court to correct the error into which this Court has fallen and to restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens today,” she said.
“The winner today, as in most days in the recent past, is business,” Mark Graber, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said in a statement.
He said the decisions will help insulate businesses from liability in workplace discrimination and retaliation lawsuits.
Both cases were decided by the same 5-to-4 conservative-liberal split among the justices.
The retaliation decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
It stems from the case of Naiel Nassar, a physician and faculty member at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Nassar is of Middle Eastern heritage and complained that one of his supervisors was biased against him because of his religion and ethnic heritage.
He eventually resigned from his teaching position but arranged to keep working at the Medical Center. After resigning, Nassar sent letters to his former supervisors and colleagues stating that he was leaving because of harassment.
Angry at the letter, one of the supervisors contacted the Medical Center, which then withdrew Nassar’s job offer.
Nassar sued, accusing the supervisor of engaging in illegal retaliation tied to his earlier complaints about bias by a different supervisor.
The question in the case was whether the lower courts applied the correct standard for proving a case of illegal retaliation.
The lower courts applied a broad standard that held that Nassar could win his case as long as he could prove that retaliation was a motivating factor [among other factors] for the adverse employment action.
The jury found for Nassar, awarding him $400,000 in back pay and more than $3 million in compensatory damages. The $3 million award was later reduced to $300,000.
An appeals court upheld the lower court’s use of the broader, motivating-factor standard.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the Medical Center argued that the lower courts should have applied a tougher standard. They said Nassar should have been required to show that he lost his job at the Medical Center because of his supervisor’s illegal retaliation.
On Monday, the high court agreed with the Medical Center that the tougher standard is required.
“The text, structure, and history of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] demonstrates that a plaintiff making a retaliation claim under [federal civil rights law] must establish that his or her [allegation of discrimination was the cause] of the alleged adverse action by the employer,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
“The University claims that a fair application of this standard, which is more demanding than the motivating-factor standard adopted by the Court of Appeals, entitles it to judgment as a matter of law,” he said.
Kennedy said that question would be better resolved by the lower courts that handled the case.
The Supreme Court vacated the earlier appeals court decision that upheld the lower court, and remanded the case for further action under the clarified standard.
The case was University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Naiel Nassar (12-484).
The decision in the second case was written by Justice Samuel Alito. The issue in that case was how to determine who qualifies as a supervisor in the workplace for purposes of a federal discrimination lawsuit.