Justices Back Educational Employers in Title VII Rulings

By Mark Walsh — June 24, 2013 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with educational institutions in two decisions that curtailed the rights of workers to battle common forms of job discrimination.

The court ruled 5 to 4 in both cases along its conservative-liberal fault line, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reading a dissent that called on Congress to correct the majority’s interpretations and invoked the famous Lily Ledbetter case.

In Vance v. Ball State University (Case No. 11-556), the court held that an employee is a supervisor for purposes of holding the employer itself liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only when that employee may take tangible job actions against the victim.

The majority rejected a broader definition of supervisor adopted by some federal courts of appeals and favored by President Obama’s administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Instead, the high court endorsed the view of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, that only employees who have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, or discipline others were supervisors under Title VII, the main federal employment-discrimination law.

“We reject the nebulous definition of a ‘supervisor’ advocated in the EEOC Guidance and substantially adopted by several courts of appeals,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

The ruling came in the case of Maetta Vance, who worked in the banquet and catering services division at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Vance was the sole African-American in the catering operation, and she faced an alleged racially hostile atmosphere caused by two white co-workers of hers.

When Vance sued the university under Title VII, a key question became whether one of the co-workers supervised Vance. Ball State said no because the co-worker did not supervise Vance’s daily work activities. Vance got direction from a chef and from the head of the catering division, the university says.

Under several Supreme Court precedents, employers may be held vicariously liable under Title VII for the acts of supervisors because a victim of harassment may be unwilling to confront a harasser who has supervisory authority over that worker. An employer would be unlikely to be held liable for harassment among co-workers where there was no supervisory relationship unless the employer turned a blind eye to the harassment.

Justice Alito said those past cases support the idea of a bright-line definition of supervisor, one that will be easier for trial judges and juries in discrimination cases to apply.

In a dissent joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, Ginsburg said Alito’s opinion “is blind to the realities of the workplace” and discounts the guidance of the EEOC, which is charged with enforcing Title VII.

But Alito said it was Ginsburg who was “out of touch” about the modern workplace, where it is “common for employees to have overlapping authority with respect to the assignment of work tasks.”

The American Council on Education, the umbrella group for higher education, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on the side of Ball State.

Meanwhile, in the second Title VII case, the same conservative majority of the court rejected a “mixed-motive” standard for Title VII retaliation cases.

The case of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (No.12-484) asked whether Title VII requires proof that an employer would not have taken an adverse action “but for” an improper motive or instead allowed a plaintiff to show that the improper motive was an additional reason for the adverse employment action.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said that the text, structure, and history of Title VII show that a plaintiff making a retaliation claim under the statute “must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer.”

The court ruled in the case of a doctor and medical school faculty member of Middle Eastern descent who alleged bias and retaliation against him based on his religion and ethnicity.

The National School Boards Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the UT medical center, which said that adoption of a mixed-motive standard would have a harmful effect on public schools as employers. Justice Kennedy cited the NSBA’s brief in his opinion.

In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg said the majority “appears driven by a zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims filed against employers.”

In her oral dissent, and her written dissent in Vance, she cited the court’s 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which backed a narrow interpretation of the time an alleged victim of pay discrimination had to bring her case to court.

In 2009, Congress reversed the ruling by amending the language of Title VII under the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

“Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court to correct this court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII,” Ginsburg said from the bench.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.