Justices Rule In Favor Of Employers In Discrimination Cases

At the Supreme Court on Monday, it was a rough day for working people. In two cases, the justices split 5-4 along ideological lines to make it harder for employees to win discrimination lawsuits. The court raised new hurdles for plaintiffs who claim they're victims of bias and that companies retaliated against them.

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And the Supreme Court was actually already having a busy week. Yesterday it handed down rulings in two other notable cases, both dealing with worker's rights. The justices split five to four along ideological lines to make it harder for employees to win discrimination lawsuits. The court raised new hurdles for plaintiffs who say they were victims of bias and then faced retaliation for raising the issue. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In the first case, the Supreme Court turned back a lawsuit filed by an African-American kitchen employee at Ball State University in Indiana. Maetta Vance alleges she was picked on by a white woman who made the job a racially hostile environment. The key issue in the case is whether that white woman counted as a supervisor and how the court majority defined workplace supervisors under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lawyer Daniel Ortiz argued for Vance in that case.

DANIEL ORTIZ: So, the question is whether you just have only the power to hire and fire, promote, that sort of thing, should count; or also having the power to, day to day, manage what someone else does in the workplace should make one a supervisor as well.

JOHNSON: Justice Samuel Alito and four other conservative justices adopted the more restrictive definition. The court majority said only people who have the authority to hire or fire a worker should be considered supervisors under the law. But the dissenters, led by Justice Ruth Ginsburg, said that ignored reality in today's workplace. Michael Foreman, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University, agrees.

MICHAEL FOREMAN: If you're working out in an oil derrick somewhere or you're working some situation where the team leader, the person there doesn't have the ability to fire or hire you, which was the Supreme Court's definition, but they have the ability to make your life miserable through racial harassment or sexual harassment, and now there's an additional hurdle for the employee to jump through.

JOHNSON: A spokesman for Ball State University says the school's pleased to bring the lawsuit to a close. In the second employment case of the day, another five-justice majority overturned a jury verdict for a Texas doctor who claimed he suffered unlawful retaliation. Dr. Naiel Nassar, who has Middle Eastern roots, said the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center withdrew a job offer after he complained about religious and ethnic discrimination. The court majority, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, made it harder to win those kinds of retaliation cases, rejecting an argument by the U.S. and friends of the court, including Michael Foreman.

FOREMAN: The argument by the U.S. government and our amicus brief and others was the law really says if it's a motivating factor, you violated the law. Here, the majority says, no, it has to be the but-for cause of the discrimination.

JOHNSON: In other words, the doctor needed to show he would not have been fired but for his employer's retaliation. Daryl Joseffer argued the case for the medical center.

DARYL JOSEFFER: If an employee who knows he's on thin ice with his employer can choose to complain of discrimination and thereby get himself, you know, preferential treatment - after that, the employer really has to be careful with him and not treat him equally but treat him specially just because he made an accusation - then, yes, it gets much dicier for employers to do what they're supposed to do.

JOHNSON: In her dissents in both cases, Justice Ginsburg said the new hurdles would help employers get rid of lawsuits before they ever went to trial and cause workers to lose in all but a handful of cases. She urged Congress to weigh in and restore those workplace protections for employees. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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