At our recent Labor and Employment Law Seminar, we highlighted a number of outstanding legal cases that have the potential to have a significant impact on employer liability. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions in two closely watched Title VII employment discrimination/retaliation cases. In each case, the Court clarified previously unsettled legal questions in favor of employers.
In Vance v. Ball State University, a 5-4 majority of the Court held that an employee qualifies as a "supervisor" for purposes of Title VII harassment liability only if the employee "is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim." In its analysis, the Court expressly rejected the EEOC's more expansive definition of "supervisor," which included any employee who had "the ability to exercise significant direction over another's daily work," even if the employee lacked the authority to take tangible employment actions.
In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the same 5-4 majority confirmed that to establish a Title VII retaliation claim, an employee must prove that the alleged protected activity was a "but for" cause of the employer's alleged adverse action. With this decision, the Court rejected the lower standard of proof used in Title VII discrimination claims, which requires proof only that the retaliation was a "motivating factor" in the employer's action. The "but for" causation standard is the same standard endorsed by the Court in 2009 for discrimination claims arising under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
Both Vance and Nassar will assist employers when defending against Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims. The Court in Vance limited the scope of employees who will qualify as "supervisors" for purposes of Title VII's harassment liability. If the alleged harasser does not qualify as a "supervisor," the plaintiff will need to prove that the employer was negligent in allowing the harassment to occur, a showing not necessary for supervisor-based harassment. With its Nassar decision, the Court made it more difficult for plaintiffs to prove Title VII retaliation claims by necessitating proof of but-for causation. In light of the ever increasing number of Title VII retaliation claims filed with the EEOC and in court, the Nassar decision could have a significant impact for litigants moving forward.