The U.S. Supreme Court issued two recent opinions that negatively affect the rights of every employee in Minnesota and across the country.
In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the issue before the court was the standard a plaintiff needs to meet in order to prove a retaliation claim under Title VII. As you may recall, Title VII is the federal law that, among other things, prohibits discrimination and retaliation in employment based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The court was presented with the question of what standard a plaintiff had to prove in order to succeed on a claim of retaliation. A claim of retaliation typically exists when an employee complains of discrimination in the workplace and then suffers some type of adverse employment action (termination, demotion, cut in pay, etc.) as a result.
As recognized in the SCOTUS Blog, Congress and the court have had a unique “back-and-forth” about what a plaintiff has to prove to succeed on a claim brought under Title VII. Like many employment law statutes, Congress approved Title VII and the Supreme Court then began narrowly interpreting it in a series of decisions. Specifically, the court had previously held that a plaintiff need to prove that “but for” their race, color, religion, etc., they would not have suffered the adverse employment action at issue. This meant that even if a plaintiff could prove an employer’s decision was based in part on an improper motive such as sex, they could still lose if the jury believed the employer would have fired them anyway.
In 1991, Congress acted and overturned those decisions. Specifically, the court adopted a “motivating factor” test that, in essence, allowed the plaintiff to prevail if she could show an improper motive was one of many “motivating factors” in the adverse employment decision.
The issue before the court in Nasser was whether the motivating factor test applied to retaliation claims. The court held that it does not. Justice Alito, writing for the 5-4 majority, stated that retaliation claims are to be decided using the “but for” analysis. Justice Ginsberg, who read her dissent in court, specifically called on Congress to overturn this decision because the court has, on numerous occasions, held that retaliation is simply another form of discrimination.
In sum, this decision makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to prove a claim of retaliation under federal law. Employees in Minnesota still may bring a retaliation claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which applies the motivating factor test.
The second case is Vance v. Ball State University. In that case, the court further defined who constitutes a “supervisor” in claims for workplace harassment. Specifically, the court held that a supervisor is limited to someone authorized to take “tangible employment actions” like hiring, firing, promoting, demoting or reassigning employees to significantly different responsibilities. The court went on to hold that “the ability to direct another employee’s tasks is simply not sufficient” to call someone a supervisor. Limiting who constitutes a supervisor is significant because the burden to prove harassment against a supervisor is less burdensome than against a co-worker.
In the big picture, these cases materially limit employees’ rights in the workplace.