U.S. Supreme Court Favors Employers in Two Discrimination Cases

Vance v. Ball State Univ., 11-556, 2013 WL 3155228 (U.S. June 24, 2013).

Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 12-484, 2013 WL 3155234 (U.S. June 24, 2013).

On Monday, June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two cases involving Title VII harassment claims. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.

In the case of Vance v. Ball State University, the Court addressed the definition of a “supervisor” as it relates to Title VII harassment claims. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Court addressed the appropriate standard to determine whether an employer engaged in retaliatory actions against an employee.

In Vance, an African-American employee of Ball State claimed that she had been racially harassed by a co-worker causing a hostile work environment. She claimed that the co-worker was her supervisor, and as such, the University should be held to a higher standard of liability. Under this higher standard, the University would be liable unless it could prove that (1) it used reasonable care to prevent the harassment and (2) the employee was unreasonable in not taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the employer. On the other hand, if the co-worker was not a supervisor, as argued by the University, the University would only be liable if found to be negligent.

The Court indicated that a co-worker is a supervisor under Title VII only if the co-worker is given the authority by the employer to engage in “tangible employment actions” against the employee. Tangible employment actions include actions such as hiring, firing, reassigning different responsibilities, changing employment benefits, and promoting/failing to promote. The Court indicated that the co-worker in this case was not a “supervisor” of the complainant because the co-worker did not have the authority to engage in tangible employment actions against the employee.

In Nassar, a physician of middle eastern descent claimed that the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center violated Title VII when (1) his supervisor allegedly discharged his employment as faculty for the University due to racial and religious discrimination and then (2) another supervisor retaliated against him because of his complaint regarding the alleged discrimination by preventing him from being hired at a local hospital.

As is the test used with some types of Title VII discrimination claims, the physician argued that the motive of retaliation need only be a motivating factor of the employer’s actions, allowing for other legal factors to also play a part in the employer’s actions. The Court ruled against this argument by determining that with regard to Title VII retaliation claims, an employer’s actions must be more than partially motivated by retaliation and must meet the higher standard of “but-for” cause; “But-for” the wrongful action (retaliation), the consequence (loss of job) would not have occurred. Therefore, the retaliation must be the reason that the employer acted, rather than one factor among many.

Ohio Supreme Court Rules Mental Condition Must be Caused by Physical Injury in Order to be Compensable Under the Workers’ Compensation System

Armstrong v. John R. Jurgensen Co., Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-2237.

In a decision released June 4, 2013, the Ohio Supreme Court has affirmed that in order for a mental condition to be compensable under the Ohio workers’ compensation system, a compensable physical injury sustained by the claimant must cause the mental condition.

The facts of the case are that an employee was involved in a motor-vehicle accident while operating a one-ton dump truck in the performance of his job duties. The employee’s truck was struck from behind by another vehicle resulting in the death of the driver. After being transported to the emergency room, the employee was treated for physical injuries and released. He was distressed to learn, while in the emergency room, that the other driver had died.

The employee filed a workers’ compensation claim for his physical injuries, and his claim was allowed for cervical strain, thoracic strain, and lumbar strain. He subsequently requested an additional allowance for post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). A hearing officer allowed the employees additional claim, finding his PTSD compensable because it was causally related to his industrial injury and his previously recognized conditions. The employer ultimately appealed to court. The parties did not dispute that the employee actually had the condition of PTSD, the dispute was over what caused it. Injured workers have the burden of proof to show that there injuries are causally related to the performance of their work duties.

The expert for the employer opined that the employee’s PTSD was caused by “the mental observation of the severity of the injury, the fatality, [and] the fact that it could have been life threatening to him at some point.” The expert further opined that the employee would have suffered PTSD regardless of his physical injuries. The trial court as well as the appeals court sided with the employer and the employee appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

R.C. 4123.01(C) defines “injury” for purposes of workers’ compensation. Psychiatric conditions are excluded from the general definition of “injury,” “except where the claimant’s psychiatric conditions have arisen from an injury or occupational disease sustained by that claimant.”

The Court recognized that no Ohio appellate court has ever recognized a workers’ compensation claim for mental injury or mental disease caused solely by job-related stress which is unaccompanied by physical injury or occupational disease. Accordingly the Court was not willing to broaden what it called unambiguous language in the statute.

Hence, for a mental injury to be compensable, it must arise from a compensable physical injury. Mental conditions, standing alone are not sufficient, nor are mental conditions which are contemporaneously incurred with a physical injury, but which are not caused by the physical injury.