High Court Sides With Employers In Discrimination Suits

The Supreme Court sided with employers in two harassment and discrimination cases. One case turned on whether one employee was another's supervisor, the other on whether the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center was justified in withdrawing an offer of employment.

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Two cases the Supreme Court decided today involved interpretations of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace. Both cases involved alleged discrimination and harassment at universities. And in both cases, the high court sided with the employers in 5-to-4 decisions.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports that business groups applauded the rulings but worker rights groups say these rulings will have a chilling effect on people who face discrimination.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Maetta Vance worked in the kitchens of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she says a woman she considered her supervisor slapped her and insulted her with racial slurs. But because the woman did not have the authority to hire or fire Vance, the high court said the woman was not a supervisor and that therefore, the employer was not liable.

DANIEL ORTIZ: Ms. Vance was obviously disappointed.

NOGUCHI: Daniel Ortiz is a law professor at University of Virginia who argued her case. He says the Supreme Court's narrow definition of supervisor ignores the reality of today's workplace; especially in medium to large-size businesses. That is, those who control your day-to-day may not be the same people, say, in human resources, who control pay and hiring.

ORTIZ: I don't really know the people in my university's HR department. They're in a different building very far away.

NOGUCHI: In a separate case, a medical center affiliated with the University of Texas filed a suit against Naiel Nassar, a doctor of Middle Eastern descent, who had originally filed suit claiming he was harassed because of his ethnic and religious heritage. He says he lost his job because of his complaint.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Nassar did not demonstrate a sufficient link between the harassment and the alleged retaliation.

Attorney Daryl Joseffer argued the case on behalf of the university. He says Nassar was, in fact, not willing to fulfill other obligations of the job. And that, he says, was the cause of the firing.

DARYL JOSEFFER: If an employee who knows he's on thin ice with his employer can chose to, you know, complain of discrimination against him or anyone else, right, and thereby get himself preferential treatment, that after that the employer really has to be careful, then, yes, it gets much dicier for employers to do what they're supposed to do.

NOGUCHI: Both decisions today deal a blow to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws. David Lopez, the agency's general counsel, says most of the complaints the EEOC receives are claims of employer retaliation. And he says the court has just made conditions more difficult for workers to bring discrimination charges.

DAVID LOPEZ: That means that even if there are retaliatory motives, that those will sometimes go unpunished. We really can't do our work without those protections.

NOGUCHI: But many on the losing side say the fight is not over. Sarah Crawford is director of workplace fairness programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

SARAH CRAWFORD: The ball is once again in Congress' court to correct the error into which this court has fallen. And I can tell you that groups like ours will be exploring actions that Congress can take to help victims of employment discrimination.

NOGUCHI: Crawford says recent history provides a model. Plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter lost an equal pay case before the Supreme Court but later successfully campaigned to change the law.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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