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U.S. Supreme Court Hands Down Rulings in Higher Education Employment Cases

June 24, 2013

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Along with Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the U.S. Supreme Court today issued two other rulings of interest to the higher education community—Vance v. Ball State University and The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar—and in both cases found in favor of the institutions. ACE submitted amicus briefs in support of both universities.

Vance v. Ball State University

Vance v. Ball State University focused on the definition of “job supervisor” in a federal workplace discrimination lawsuit.

The suit was filed by Ball State catering worker Maetta Vance, whose discrimination claim against the university was dismissed after a federal appeals court said her alleged harasser did not qualify as a supervisor. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer is automatically liable for a “supervisor” who discriminates against an employee based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Act does not define who may be supervisor, and the courts have differed on the topic. 

By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court adopted the rule proposed by the employer. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that for purposes of this Title VII rule, to be a “supervisor,” a person must have the power to take a “tangible employment action” against the victim. Ball State prevailed in this case because the plaintiff could not show that she was discriminated against by her supervisor, rather than a co-worker, under the court’s definition.

The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar looked at what employees must prove in order to prevail on a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that their employer retaliated against them. The case involves a medical professor and physician who claims the university retaliated against him after he made a complaint of ethnic discrimination by a supervisor.

Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee who has "made a charge, testified, assisted or participated in" any charge of unlawful discrimination. To prove retaliation, a plaintiff has to show that he or she suffered an “adverse employment action” as a result of the protected action.

At issue was whether, in a Title VII retaliation claim, the plaintiff had to prove that the protected action was the sole motive for retaliation (“but-for” causation), or just one of multiple reasons. Federal courts have split on which burden of proof is appropriate.

Writing for a five-Justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy explained that in a retaliation case, unlike in a discrimination case, the protected action must be the “but-for” cause, not merely a motivating factor. The Supreme Court therefore overturned the lower court’s decision, which found in favor of Nassar based on the incorrect standard.

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