Q&A with Adam Childers
Two recent court decisions impact employment law
Q: Please explain the recent United States Supreme Court decision on who qualifies as a supervisor.
A: On June 24, the high court handed down two important victories for employers. First, in Vance vs. Ball State University, the Supreme Court justices resolved the split in lower courts about the definition of a “supervisor” for purposes of imposing liability in employment discrimination and harassment cases. The court ruled that to be considered a supervisor, an employee must have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the employee under his/her supervision. The decision is important for employers because it limits the class of employees who can be considered supervisors, in turn narrowing an employer's exposure to vicarious liability under Title VII.
Q: How did the Supreme Court rule on the second employment law case this term?
A: On the same day, the Court also decided University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center vs. Nassar. In this case, the court made a technical ruling that is harder to follow, but is no less important for employers than the Vance case. Specifically, the Supreme Court ruled that in cases in which former employees are alleging that their employer had both retaliatory and non-retaliatory reason, also called “mixed motives,” for their dismissal, the former employee must prove that it was his or her protected activity that was the “but-for” cause for the decision to fire. Rather than just showing that retaliation was a motivating factor in the decision to discharge the employee, plaintiffs must now show that "but-for" their protected activity, they would not have been fired. Functionally, this will thin out some of the many retaliation claims being brought by plaintiffs. This is a very important development considering that proportionally speaking, retaliation claims are among the most prevalent employment lawsuits being filed today.
Q: How will these two decisions impact employers/employees in the future?
A: Employers will enjoy enhanced legal defenses in wrongful termination, retaliation and harassment/discrimination cases. For employees, it's more difficult to bring these kinds of claims against employers. Of course, the lawsuits will continue to be filed, and lawyers for employees and employers will continue to argue the finer points and nuances of these decisions. But the bottom line is June 24 was a double victory for employers.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER