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Supreme Court narrows definitions in two employment cases, p. 2

We are continuing the discussion from our June 26 post about two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that will change the way Connecticut employers and employees alike handle workplace discrimination complaints.

Both cases were filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case we reviewed in our June 26 post narrows the definition of supervisor in discrimination claims. The second case deals with a retaliation claim.

The plaintiff, a doctor of Middle Eastern descent, said he resigned his position with a university medical school because the head of his department had harassed him; he claimed she had a "religious, racial and cultural bias against Arabs and Muslims." An affiliated hospital offered him a position but quickly rescinded the offer; the plaintiff's supervisor had learned that the plaintiff had shared his allegations of bias with other university employees and convinced the hospital that the offer would violate the school's affiliation agreement with the hospital.

As in the first case, the question for the court was not a simple, "Was it or wasn't it discrimination?" According to the decision, the question was, "Was the discrimination the only reason the hospital withdrew the offer?"

The court, in another 5-4 decision, said that the statute requires strict causation. That is, to prevail, the plaintiff had to prove that the retaliation would not have occurred but for the employer's wrongful act. The discrimination cannot be a reason; it must be the reason.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg penned a stinging dissent. The decision, she said, contradicts what the court has said up to now, that "retaliation for complaining about discrimination is tightly bonded to the core prohibition and cannot be disassociated from it." Ginsburg continued: "[R]etaliation in response to a complaint about [proscribed] discrimination is discrimination."

Both decisions limit employees' chances of prevailing in discrimination claims, but businesses should not take the court's rulings as permission to discriminate based on race or to retaliate against employees who complain about discrimination. The decisions make it harder but not impossible for employees to prevail, and this kind of litigation can be costly and disruptive.

If you are concerned about the specific implications of these decisions for your business or pending claims against your business, you should consult an experienced employment law attorney.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Retaliation Verdict Was Too Hasty, Justices Rule," Barbara Leonard, June 24, 2013

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