While the U.S. Supreme Court was issuing high profile cases at the end of its 2012-2013 Term this summer, it also decided a pair of important employment law cases that will affect employees and employers throughout the country, including here in Minnesota.

The two cases, one dealing with sexual harassment and the other with retaliation, did not get much attention in the glare of publicity surrounding other controversial cases. But both rulings, narrowly decided by 5-4 votes, include significant features for the workplace.

In Vance v. Ball State University, by a 5-4 vote, the court narrowed the definition of “supervisor” under the Federal anti-discrimination law. It held that a supervisor is limited to those authorized to take “tangible employment actions” such as hiring, firing, promoting, demoting or reassigning personnel. The case is important because under this constricted definition, employers are not strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by lower-level employees.

  • To prevail in a harassment claim, the employee must prove that the employer was negligent or carless in failing to stop improper behavior of co-workers who are not “supervisors.” An employer is strictly liable only if the misconduct is by high level managers who meet the new “supervisor” definition.
  • This will make it harder for some employees to pursue sexual harassment claims under Federal law.

The other case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v Nassar, rejected a claim of retaliation by a doctor of Middle Eastern descent who alleged he was not given a promotion because he complained about discrimination by his boss. This ruling is significant because:

  • To prevail in a retaliation claim, the employee must prove that his complaint was the decisive reason for adverse action.
  • A “but for” standard was established that requires proving that the action was taken only because of the complaint rather than a less demanding “motivating” factor criteria.
  • This, too, will make it harder for an employee to pursue retaliation claims under the Federal discrimination laws.

It is still unclear how these cases will affect all employees and employers. While they arise under Federal law, they might not be applicable in state anti-discrimination laws under the Human Rights Act. Courts in this state generally follow Federal rulings in applying state laws, but they can and occasionally do interpret them differently and sometimes are favorable for employees.

Only time will tell how these cases will be applied to employers and employees in Minnesota.