In the midst of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions regarding DOMA, Proposition 8, and the Voting Rights Act, two decisions affecting discriminated employees have been overlooked by many. The decisions are both very important, however, since they both make it more difficult for employees to hold their employers responsible for Title VII violations. One case involves an employee who brought suit for racially-based discrimination, and the other involves a doctor who claimed his employers retaliated when he resigned due to discrimination based on religion and national origin.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer to treat employees differently or harass them based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Act also prohibits employers from retaliating with adverse employment actions against employees for reporting discrimination. The recent decisions from the Court narrowly interpret Title VII and makes it significantly more difficult for employees to obtain justice for employment discrimination. The Court’s opinions seem to operate from a perspective that is not in touch with the ways discrimination tends to actually manifest in the average workplace.
Recent Supreme Court Cases
Generally, it is easier for a victim to hold the employer liable if the discrimination or harassment comes from a “supervisor” than from someone who is merely a co-worker. A supervisor has traditionally included someone with authority to direct daily work activities of other employees. In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court narrowed the definition of supervisor, making it more difficult for an employer to be held accountable. The new definition requires that a supervisor have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, or transfer the victim of harassment. This means that employers are likely insulated for liability for behaviors of people who so, in fact, supervise others’ work on a daily basis, and victims will have a much more difficult time recovering. Maetta Vance, the plaintiff in this case, suffered racially-based harassment and intimidation from someone who supervised and had control over her daily work. However, because that person did not have final power to hire or fire, Ball State University was not held responsible.
In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, a doctor suffered discrimination based on the fact that he was Middle-Eastern. The treatment was so bad that he resigned, and he claims the employer retaliated by successfully blocking a job offer he had received. The employer claimed to have other reasons for blocking the opportunity that were not in retaliation. The Supreme Court decided that mixed motives are not enough to be liable for retaliation. But instead, a plaintiff would have to show that the retaliation would not have happened but for the fact that he had complained about discrimination. This means that if an employer can show any other reason for the adverse employment action, no matter how tenuous, it can likely avoid liability.
The Court’s decisions made it more difficult for plaintiffs to hold employers accountable for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. However, that does not mean that full recovery is not sometimes possible, and no employee should feel as if he or she should just accept workplace Title VII violations. If you believe your employer has violated Title VII or another employment law, contact our office as soon as possible.