Good news doesn’t seem to come often for employers in the employment law world. However, just a few days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two split (5-4) decisions favorable to management. Let’s take a brief look.
In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court found that a “supervisor,” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII, is an employee authorized by an employer to take tangible employment actions against another worker. Justice Alito wrote that a Title VII “supervisor” must have the power to make a “significant change” in another worker’s employment status, such as through hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassigning with “significantly different responsibilities,” or causing a “significant change in benefits.” The majority rejected the broader definition of “supervisor” adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Note: as the employment lawyers here at HF have mentioned before, it is important to consider the guidance and positions issued by the EEOC, but there are some which the courts do not follow – this is an example).
On the very same day, in Univ. of Texas SW Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, the Court ruled, in another 5-4 decision, that a plaintiff alleging unlawful retaliation under Title VII must prove retaliation was the “but for” cause of the adverse action. Here, the Court reversed a federal circuit court decision which held that a Title VII retaliation plaintiff can prevail if he/she shows retaliation was just a “motivating factor” for an employer taking adverse action. The Court held that the “mixed motive” standard only pertains to “status discrimination,” meaning alleged discrimination based on race, color, gender, national origin, and religion. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote that the “text, structure, and history of Title VII demonstrates that a plaintiff making a retaliation claim . . . must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged action.”
This was a huge victory for employers. As we all know, retaliation claims have boomed in the last few years, and are often difficult to defend. The Nassar decision will make it much more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail, and will give employers a significantly improved chance of obtaining summary judgment on Title VII retaliation claims. It will be interesting to see if any members of Congress move to “legislatively overrule” this decision. Of course, any such move in that direction would likely take years.
And lastly, a bonus piece of good news. The date for the 22nd annual Henderson Franklin HR Law & Solutions seminar has been set. It will be held on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort and Spa. Please mark that on your calendars. We at HF wish you a great summer!