Employers made gains in two rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, as cases provided a clearer definition of harassment and employment discrimination. Both of the Court’s decisions reduce the risk to companies that they will be sued for the imprudent and ill-advised actions of lower-level employees.
These rulings set in motion more narrow definitions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such as:
Definition of “supervisor” narrowed in Title VII harassment cases — Previously, if an employee was experiencing sexual or other harassment from a co-worker, the employer’s inability to prevent that harassment from happening was grounds for a lawsuit under Title VII. But in the 2013 ruling in Vance v. Ball State University, a supervisor is defined as someone who has the ability to take tangible employment actions with regard to the employee. That is, harassment from a peer no longer implicates the employer. An employer is only exposed to Title VII liability if a supervisor — one who holds authority over the harasser or harassment victim or both — is aware of the harassment and fails to stop future incidents.
Title VII definition narrowed on employment actions — The ruling in Univ. of Texas Southwestern Med. Ctr. v. Nassar stated that retaliation must be the so-called "but for" cause for an adverse employment action (firing, lack of promotion, not hiring) rather than one of several "motivating" factors. For example, it is no longer enough for an employee to prove that her complaint of racial discrimination was one of several reasons for her subsequent termination, she must prove that the termination would not have occurred in the absence of the employer's wrongful retaliation.
These rulings notwithstanding, employment laws create vulnerabilities for organizations and companies. An employment law attorney provides essential support that can help prevent litigation and, if the company is sued, respond quickly and effectively.