Supreme Court Rulings Require Higher Burden of Proof in Employment Discrimination Cases
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court issued two decisions that significantly changed the face of employment law and effectively made it more difficult for employees to prove job discrimination. Although both decisions were pivotal, each came by way of a 5-4 majority, with four of the Supreme Court’s liberal judges commenting on the need to fix restrictive rulings. One case narrowed the legal definition of what a supervisor means in sexual and racial discrimination matters. Another resulted in steeper standards for proving illegal retaliation from employers.
The first Supreme Court decision came as the result of Vance v. Ball State University, a case involving an African American employee who had accused her supervisor of racially based harassment. As determined by the court, the person being accused of harassment was actually a co-worker, not a supervisor. In workplace discrimination cases, the distinction between a co-worker and a supervisor is crucial, as courts require a higher burden of proof for the employer to be held liable for workers’ conduct.
The decision reached by the court rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition of supervisor as a person who takes “tangible employment actions” or who directs the employee’s daily work activities. Instead of this definition, the court ruled that a supervisor is not someone who simply oversees another employee’s daily work duties, but rather someone authorized to take enact “tangible employment actions” such as promoting, demoting, hiring, firing, or reassigning employees to different responsibilities. The court further ruled that current definitions were vague and ambiguous and that simply directing another employee’s tasks does not constitute a supervisor.
Under the former definition of supervisor, courts required a lower burden of proof to hold employer’s liable for sexual and racial harassment. Now that the definition has been tightened to exclude co-workers who oversee daily work activities, victims of workplace harassment will be held to the higher burden of proving that the employer did not take actions to prevent or stop the harassment.
The second Supreme Court decision, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, involved a physician of Middle Eastern descent. According to the physician, he faced a hostile work environment from a hospital superior because of his religion and ethnicity. He also claimed that he experienced illegal employer retaliation when he was passed over for a promotion after he had complained of discrimination.
In the court’s ruling, judges tightened the legal standards employees need to prove when they claim that they experienced adverse employment actions and employer retaliation for informing employers about workplace discrimination. The court determined that retaliation cases should have tougher standards of proof than other discrimination cases, where employers can be held liable for retaliation if wrongful discrimination is a motivating factor for an adverse employment action. With the court’s ruling, workers must prove that retaliation was the determinative factor for a negative employment action.
At Crary Buchanan, our Stuart employment lawyers are dedicated to upholding the rights of all workers in a variety of employment law cases, regardless of their race, religion, or gender. While many believe that these two Supreme Court decisions are a step backward in a long battle for progress and equality, there is hope that these rulings will be challenged, especially since several Supreme Court Judges have expressed disapproval.
Regardless of the current trends and legal standards in place, workplace discrimination cases are often challenging and emotionally turbulent. As such, our legal team makes every effort to fully educate our clients about their rights, employment law, and the ways in which we can help them exceed the legal burdens of proof during their case. We believe that employers and others in the workplace should be held liable for their violations and inappropriate conduct, and we use more than 85 years of combined experience to fight on behalf of employees who wish to pursue legal action against their employers or co-workers. Learn more about the ways in which our firm can fight for you, obtain justice, and secure the compensation you rightfully deserve. Contact Crary Buchanan today.