The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday issued two Title VII decisions favorable to employers. One case examined the definition of a supervisor under the anti-discrimination laws, and the other dealt with an employee’s burden of proof in mixed-motive retaliation actions.

In Vance v. Ball State, the Court narrowed the definition of a supervisor for Title VII purposes. To be considered a supervisor, an employee must have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline the employee complaining of discrimination. If an employee does not have the authority to make these "tangible employment decisions," that employee will not be considered a supervisor. 

Under Title VII, employers are vicariously liable for the discriminatory actions of their supervisors. The Vance decision is important for employers because it limits the class of employees who can be considered supervisors, in turn narrowing an employer’s exposure to vicarious liability under Title VII.

On the same day, the Court also decided University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. The Court held that in mixed-motive retaliation actions under Title VII (that is, one in which the employee alleges that the employer had both retaliatory and non-retaliatory reasons for the employment decision), an employee must prove that his or her protected activity was a “but-for” cause of the employer’s adverse employment action.

This decision changes the pre-existing burdens of proof in retaliation matters under Title VII. Instead of having to prove that retaliation was simply a motivating factor in mixed-motive cases, employees must now meet the higher burden of showing that they would not have suffered the adverse action “but-for” the retaliation.