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More Good News for Employers – Supreme Court Toughens Standards

Employers received more good news from the U.S. Supreme Court this week with decisions in two cases that toughen standards for determining who is a supervisor and for proving retaliation. 

In Vance v. Ball State University, the majority rejected the definition of “supervisor” advanced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, i.e. someone authorized to take “tangible employment actions” or direct the employee’s daily work activities.  Instead, the court ruled 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.  Justice Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, noted that “the ability to direct another employee’s tasks is simply not sufficient” to declare someone a supervisor.  The decision is significant because plaintiffs claiming racial or sexual harassment face a lower burden to prove an employer liable when the harassment is committed by a supervisor rather than a co-worker.

In a second employment law decision issued on Monday, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the court raised the bar for plaintiffs claiming retaliation.  The court held that a plaintiff must prove that the retaliation was not just a motivating factor in an adverse action, but the determinative factor.  As a result, courts must now apply a “but for” standard to causation in retaliation claims. 

These decisions along with last week’s pro arbitration ruling are the most good news employers have had from the Supreme Court in recent years.

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