US Supreme Court Ruling Offers Employers Hope in Pro-Employee World

LawFuel.com – Law Firm News – The Supreme Court vacated that decision, concluding that “the text, structure and history of Title VII demonstrate that a plaintiff making a retaliation claim … must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer.”

 

The Court reasoned that because Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision appears in a different section from the status-based discrimination ban, which utilizes the lesser “motivating factor” causation test, the “but-for” standard applies to Title VII retaliation claims. Accordingly, “Title VII retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action.” To establish a retaliation claim, employees must now show that their employer would not have taken the challenged employment action but for the employee’s protected activity.

Vance Limits “Supervisors” to Those with Power to Take a Tangible Employment Action

In a second critical decision for employers, plaintiff in Vance, an African-American woman, worked in the university’s Banquet and Catering Division of Dining Services. Plaintiff alleged that a fellow employee, a white woman named Davis, harassed and intimidated her because of her race.  Plaintiff sued under Title VII, alleging that her white co-worker created a racially hostile work environment. “The parties vigorously dispute[d] the precise nature and scope of Davis’ duties, but they agree[d] that Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance.”

The District Court granted defendant summary judgment, holding the university was not vicariously liable for Davis’s alleged actions because she could not take tangible employment actions against the plaintiff and therefore was not a “supervisor.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide “who qualifies as a ‘supervisor’” under Title VII. The Court held that “an employee is a ‘supervisor’ 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” and affirmed.

In analyzing when an employer is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees, the Court defined “tangible employment actions” to include effecting “‘a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.’” The Court specifically rejected the EEOC’s definition of “supervisor,” which tied “supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant direction over another’s daily work[,]” as “a study in ambiguity.” Hence, under Title VII, if an employee is not authorized to impose tangible employment actions against another, the employer cannot be vicariously liable for the subject employee’s alleged harassment.

Vance enhances an employer’s ability to limit the company’s responsibility for harassment. Employers should remain mindful of the duties of their employees, ensuring that only key management and supervisory personnel possess the power to effect a “significant change in employment status”. Clear definitions of an employee’s responsibilities should greatly limit any future claims of vicarious liability against employers. This more precise definition of “supervisor” should, like Nassar, increase the likelihood of dismissal at the summary judgment stage and help obtain favorable in limine and trial rulings.

Conclusion

Nassar and Vance afford significant advantages to employers defending against discrimination and retaliation claims.  Importantly, although the decisions themselves were concerned with claims arising under federal anti-discrimination (not just Title VII) laws, the Court’s reasoning may well find acceptance among state courts, which frequently apply the Title VII analysis to claims asserted under analogous state laws. Nassar and Vance are likely to prove valuable tools to employers defending against claims of discrimination and/or retaliation, increasing both the prospects of obtaining summary judgment and, if necessary, the odds of success at trial.

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