U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action and gay marriage may be getting most of the attention as the Supreme Court winds up its term.
But two decisions announced at the end of the court’s term are worth noting for the impact they will have on certain civil discrimination suits filed under federal law.
The cases, Vance v. Ball State and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nasser, both arose in the context of Title VII discrimination claims.
In Vance, the court holds that an employee is a â€œsupervisorâ€ for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.
Vance was an African-American woman who alleged that there was a racially hostile work environment that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But the alleged harasser was not a supervisor who had tangible supervisory authority over Ms. Vance.
As a result, Vance had no basis to pursue her claim. The decision, written by Justice Alito, rejected a dissent by liberals on the court.
Nasser alleged that racial and religiously motivated harassment had resulted in his constructive discharge from the University, in violation of 42 U. S. C. Â§2000eâ€“2(a), which prohibits an employer from discriminat- ing against an employee â€œbecause of such individualâ€™s race, color, religion, sex, and national originâ€ Nasser also claimed that efforts to prevent the hospital from hiring him were in retaliation for complaining about harassment, in violation of Â§2000eâ€“3(a), which prohibits employer retaliation â€œbecause [an employee] has opposed . . . an unlawful employment practice . . . or . . . made a [Title VII] charge.
At issue in the Nasser case was what level of proof is required to show discrimination in a retaliation discrimination case. Is it sufficient for a claimant to show that retaliation was a contributing factor to the adverse action taken against the worker? Or is a more stringent level of proof required?
After all, the courts have recognized the viability of Title VII discrimination claims based on “mixed motives” (i.e. where the discrimination was not the only factor).
But in the Nasser case the Supreme Court finds that the law requires a different standard for retaliation claims.The opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy finds that that the standard of proof in retaliation cases requires a showing of “but for causation”.
Kennedy’s opinion outlines this as follows:
“…..the Court now concludes as follows: Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation, not the lessened causation test stated in Â§2000eâ€“2(m). This requires proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer.”
Here is a link to the Vance v. Ball State case:
http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12 … 6_11o2.pdf
Here is a link to the Nasser case:
http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12 … 4_o759.pdf
These decisions have no direct effect on workers’ comp claims. But they are of interest since many comp psych stress claims involve allegations of discrimination, some of which are also pursued in federal court under anti-discrimination theories.