It Has Been a Good Week for Employers!
In this week's 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court provided the needed clarification and guidance on two issues: liability for supervisor harassment, and the standard for proving retaliation under Title VII.
Liability for supervisor harassment
The court held that to be considered a supervisor, the employee must be empowered by the employer to take "tangible" employment actions against the victim. This means that the employee must have the power to effect "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." The Court rejected as "nebulous" the EEOC's definition of a supervisor to include anyone with the ability to significantly direct another's daily work.
The Supreme Court's decision is a favorable one for employers because it narrows the circumstances under which employers can be held vicariously liable for harassment, and should reduce litigation costs that previously had to be expended litigating whether the alleged harasser was a supervisor or not. If the harasser is a supervisor, the employer generally is vicariously liable for the harassment; if the harasser is not a supervisor but a co-worker of the victim, then the employer generally only is liable if it knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt and effective remedial action.
Standard for proving retaliation
In another employer-friendly Title VII decision issued this week, the Court in a 5-4 decision decided a split among the circuit courts concerning the standard for proving retaliation claims under title VII (meaning claims that an employee was retaliated against for complaining about discriminatory practices in violation of Title VII).
Prior to yesterday's decision, some courts held that an employee need only prove that a retaliatory motive was "a motivating factor" behind the adverse employment action. The Supreme Court has now spoken and held that the standard for proving a retaliation claim under Title VII is "but for" causation. This decision similarly is favorable for employers litigating Title VII retaliation claims because it makes it more difficult for the plaintiff to prove and prevail in the claim.