On June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued two decisions that provide additional protections to employers defending claims made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One decision, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, requires a heightened level of proof to establish causation in retaliation claims made under Title VII. The other, Vance v. Ball State University, limits the circumstances under which an employer may be held vicariously liable for harassment claims under Title VII.
In Nassar, an employee filed a retaliation claim under Title VII alleging that he was denied a job in retaliation for previous complaints about discrimination. A federal court of appeals affirmed a jury verdict, holding that a plaintiff need only prove that the employer was motivated, in part, by a discriminatory intent.
The Supreme Court rejected this position. The court held that the “motivating factor” test, which applied to discrimination based on race, sex and other protected characteristics, did not apply to Title VII retaliation claims. Instead, retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the “but-for” cause for the alleged retaliation. Simply put, plaintiffs must prove that the harm would not have occurred in the absence of the wrongful conduct of the employer — the desire to retaliate was the reason the employer decided to act.
The court noted in its opinion that retaliation claims have been filed with ever-increasing frequency. The heightened causation standard applied to Title VII retaliation claims will greatly assist employers in defending these claims.
In Vance, the Supreme Court addressed the situation under which an employer will be held vicariously liable for an alleged harasser’s conduct in violation of Title VII. In this case, the conduct was alleged to be racial taunts and threats.
In a case where a coworker is the alleged harasser, the employer will be liable only if the plaintiff can show that the employer was negligent in failing to prevent or promptly correct harassment. In other words, that employer knew or should have known of the harassment but failed to correct it.
If the alleged harasser is a supervisor, however, the employer will be liable unless it can show that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassing conduct and the employee failed to take advantage of any preventative opportunities provided by the employer.
The court held that to be considered a supervisor for purposes of a Title VII claim, the harasser must be “empowered” by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim — that is, the harasser is empowered to hire, fire, determine promotions, reassign with significantly different responsibilities or decide a significant change in benefits.
As a result of this decision, alleged harassment by an employee who merely directs or controls some aspects of an individual’s day-to-day responsibilities — such as a “team leader” — is less likely to result in employer liability.
The decisions represent important victories for employers who continue to face an increasing number of lawsuits under Title VII.