Although the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor has drawn the most attention, other key rulings from the 2012-2013 term also affect HR.
In a new podcast, our editorial team examines a pair of wins for employers in cases involving Title VII of the Civil Rights Act--Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar and Vance v. Ball State - plus other rulings involving affirmative action and arbitration.
Title VII Triumphs for Employers
Legal Editor Beth Zoller discusses Vance v. Ball State, in which the Court ruled that a supervisor must be someone with the direct power and authority to hire or fire an employee. The Court concluded that simply controlling a worker's daily tasks, without more, does not raise someone to a supervisory level. Zoller calls this a big issue because:
Job roles in today's workforce are not always clearly defined;
Employers are strictly liable for the actions of supervisors when harassment leads to a tangible employment action, but not for co-workers; and
The ruling reduces the number of cases in which an employer will face liability.
In ruling for the employer in Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Supreme Court concluded that an individual can win a retaliation case only by showing the employer would not have acted "but for" an improper motive. The Court expressed concern that a lower standard of proof could lead to the filing of frivolous claims that would siphon resources needed to combat workplace harassment from employers, agencies and the courts.
Legal Editor Michael Jacobson discusses the cases of Oxford Health Plans v. Sutter and American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant. In Oxford, the Court held that where an arbitration agreement is silent on the question of class arbitration formation, the arbitrator - and not the federal courts - has the final say as to whether the employees are permitted to form a class. In the American Express dispute, the Court ruled that class action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements are valid and enforceable.
Jacobson calls both results victories for employers that use arbitration agreements. But he says it is important to remember that mandatory arbitration programs are not for every employer. "They typically help larger employers with widespread facility locations and large numbers of employees," says Jacobson. "But for smaller employers, some studies show that having an arbitration program actually encourages arbitration claims."
The Supreme Court's new term begins October 7. Continue to follow XpertHR for the most significant developments affecting employers.