Supreme Court narrows scope of Title VII for employment discrimination claims

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday released two opinions that narrow the scope of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [text], holding that an employer will only be held vicariously liable for an employee's discriminatory conduct if the employee's behavior ends in a tangible employment action against the victim; and that employees bringing Title VII retaliation claims must prove that the employer's actions would not have been taken against them but for a discriminatory motive. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a 5-4 majority in Vance v. Ball State University [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report], found [opinion, PDF] that an employee is considered a "supervisor" under Title VII only if she is empowered by the employer to make tangible employment actions against the victim. Under Title VII, an employer may be held vicariously liable for the discriminatory actions of an employee if the unlawful actions were done by a "supervisor." The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) [official website], the agency established by Congress to interpret and enforce Title VII, has defined "supervisor" as an employee who wields authority "of sufficient magnitude so as to assist the harasser explicitly or implicitly in carrying out the harassment." However, the majority rejected the "nebulous definition" advocated by the EEOC in favor of a narrow, less complex definition that will be more easily administrable. In her dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated:

Trumpeting the virtues of simplicity and administrability, the Court restricts supervisor status to those with power to take tangible employment actions. In so restricting the definition of supervisor, the Court once again shuts from sight the robust protection against workplace discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure.
The Court also split [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report]. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, vacated a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and held that retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation. The Fifth Circuit upheld a jury verdict in favor of Dr. Nassar, who claimed that he was retaliated against due to his earlier complaint alleging discrimination. Title VII, as amended in 1991, requires that plaintiffs bringing status-based claims of discrimination, claims based on race, sex, color, religion or national origin, may prove discrimination by showing that motivation to discriminate was at least one of the employer's motives. However, the Supreme Court, by analyzing the statutory language and structure, held that this provision does not apply to claims of retaliation. Instead "retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation ... that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer." Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan dissented from the majority opinion.

In a statement from the bench, Ginsburg stated that Monday's rulings in Vance and Nassar dilute the strength of Title VII, and Congress must once again correct the court's interpretation of the law. Ginsburg also wrote a dissent to the 2007 case Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear [JURIST report], a ruling that limited a victim's ability to bring suit over gender pay discrimination. In 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law [JURIST report], which effectively overturned the 2007 Supreme Court decision.

 

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