Supreme Court’s Decisions in Employment Cases Make it Harder to Fight Workplace Discrimination

This week, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two cases, Vance v. Ball State University and University of Texas Southwest Medical Center v. Nassar, dealing heavy blows to federal protections from employment discrimination. 

The Court’s 5-4 decision in Vance limited employment discrimination claims by ruling that an employer is not liable for harassment that an employee may suffer from a supervisor unless that supervisor has the power to hire or fire that employee. In Nassar, the Court ruled 5-4  that a plaintiff who brings a discrimination claim of retaliation for complaining about discrimination must meet a higher standard for that claim than he or she would have to meet if he were bringing a claim for the discrimination itself.

Civil rights groups criticized both decisions for ignoring the realities of the workplace for employees and making it harder for victims of workplace discrimination to have their rights redressed.

“Today’s decisions are deeply troubling and undermine decades of work to advance equal opportunity and end workplace harassment,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “In both cases, the Court unfairly imposed a  new, much heavier burden for victims of workplace harassment and discrimination.”

Both cases were brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Reading from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the decisions “dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended. … Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court to correct this Court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII.”