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.