New Supreme Court decisions alter calculus in employee rights cases

Harassing or discriminating against employees on the basis of race, sex or any other protected characteristic is illegal under both federal and Texas state law. So is retaliating against employees who make good faith claims of harassment or discrimination. Despite this prohibition, harassment, discrimination and retaliation occur far more often than they should. When they do, victims have a right to take legal action to hold their employers accountable.

However, two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have put new hurdles in the path of employees seeking to make these claims. The first addresses who qualifies as a "supervisor" for the purposes of employment law. The second deals with the standard of proof necessary to demonstrate retaliation.

Vance v. Ball State University

The plaintiff in this case was an African-American woman who claimed to have been subjected to racial harassment at work. Her alleged harasser was a coworker who did not have the power to fire her, but did have the power to direct her day-to-day activities.

The plaintiff sought redress under a law that automatically holds employers liable for harassment perpetrated by an employee working in a supervisory capacity. In cases involving non-supervisory employees, employers are generally only liable if they knew about the harassment and were negligent in failing to put a stop to it.

The plaintiff's employer challenged her claim, arguing an employee must have the authority to hire and fire in order to qualify as a "supervisor." The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the employer, but for a slightly different reason. The court held that to be a supervisor one must be able to create a "significant change in employment status" of the employee. This is not limited to hiring and firing. It could also include other "tangible employment actions" such as failing to promote an employee or reassigning the employee to significantly different responsibilities. Merely directing an employee's daily activities is not enough.

University of Texas Medical Center v. Nassar

The plaintiff in this case was a physician who complained to his employer that he had been subjected to hostile treatment based on his Middle Eastern heritage. He later sued, claiming that his employer had denied him permanent employment because of his earlier complaint. The employer, for its part, claimed that it would not have extended a permanent offer to the physician even if he had not complained.

The Supreme Court took the case to determine the proper causation standard for discrimination-based retaliation claims. In most discrimination claims, plaintiffs only need to show that discrimination was "a motivating factor" for the employer's conduct, even if other legitimate factors motivated the decision. However, the Supreme Court held that in retaliation claims, plaintiffs must show that retaliation was the but-for cause of the employer's action. In other words, plaintiffs must show the employer's action would not have occurred but for the employer's desire to retaliate.

Texas employment discrimination claims

Employees in Texas are protected from discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on age, sex, color, race, national origin, religion and disability. While these two Supreme Court cases draw brighter lines for evaluating employment law claims and will make it harder for employees to recover for discrimination, it is still possible for victims of employment discrimination to prevail. If you have been subjected to unfair treatment at work, talk to an experienced Texas employment law attorney who can review your claim and help you understand your rights.