Supreme Court Favors Employers in Discrimination and Retaliation Cases

By Linda H. Evans,
Senior Associate.


In a pair of employment decisions on Monday (June 24) the Court ruled in favor of employers.  In the race discrimination claim, a cafeteria worker at an Indiana university had brought claims against a manager who had made derogatory remarks about her.  The employee believed that the university was responsible for the harassment by the manager.  The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take employment actions against the victim, such has firing or reassigning the victim.  The majority said if victims complain to top supervisors about harassment and nothing is done to stop it, then the victim can pursue claims and prevail.  But as in this case, an employer can be held strictly liable for harassment only if it is perpetuated by a supervisor who holds real authority. (Vance v. Ball State University).


In the retaliation case, the justices reversed a jury verdict against a medical center in Dallas, which had been sued by one of the doctors.  When the doctor worked for the medical center he had complained that one of his supervisors was biased against his nationality and was making harsh comments.  The doctor left that position to take another job with the same institution.  But a top hospital official, upset by the doctor’s allegations against his former supervisor, withdrew the job offer.  The doctor sued, alleging he was the victim of illegal retaliation and the jury agreed that retaliation played a role in the decision to withdraw the job offer. He was awarded more than $700,000 and the Fifth Circuit affirmed the verdict.  But the Supremes said the verdict could not stand because the doctor did not prove that illegal retaliation was the motivating factor in the withdrawal of the job offer, not just one of several reasons for the adverse action.  In this case the hospital official had opposed offering the doctor a different job even before the retaliation claim was made.  (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar).


Bottom Line:  But don’t be too hasty to change any policies based on these decisions.  We still say having fair, nondiscriminatory policies is the best way to avoid messy, costly lawsuits! Call us if you have questions.