Reshaping Employment Law: Supreme Court Narrows Employer Liability For Workplace Discrimination & Retaliation Claims

Author:Mr Jonathan Trafimow
Profession:Moritt, Hock & Hamroff LLP

On June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court handed down three separate decisions that will narrow employer liability for workplace discrimination and retaliation under federal law. While Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin dominated the headlines, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar and Vance v. Ball State University clarified and narrowed employer liability standards under important sections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). Taken together, these decisions are good news for employers.

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. In this case, the Supreme Court considered whether a 1991 amendment to Title VII changed the standard applicable in retaliation cases. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination "because of" a person's "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Similarly, Title VII's anti‐retaliation provision bans retaliation against an employee "because" the employee opposes an unlawful employment practice, or commences or participates in an investigation or proceeding regarding an alleged violation of Title VII. In 1991, however, Congress amended Title VII (the Civil Rights Act of 1991), explaining that a party proves an unlawful employment practice if it "demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice." This "motivating factor" standard is an easier burden for employees to meet than the statute's original "because of" standard (also called a "but‐for" standard). Subsequent Supreme Court decisions under other statutes also have grappled with the appropriate standard to apply in the context of workplace discrimination claims arising under federal law. After a detailed analysis of the statute and he Court's precedents, the Court concluded that the "but‐for" standard applies to retaliation claims brought under Title VII.

Vance v. Ball State University. Under Title VII, in certain cases (not all), an employer's liability for workplace harassment depends on whether the harasser was the employee's "supervisor," as opposed to a co‐worker. If a supervisor's harassment culminates in a "tangible employment action" (e.g., hiring, firing, demotion, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits), then the employer will be strictly liable. However, if no tangible employment action follows, the employer may escape...

To continue reading