Human Resources and Law

Supreme Court rules in favor of businesses

June 28, 2013
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While affirmative action was the case making headlines last Monday, two other cases decided by the Supreme Court could have a greater impact on businesses. 

In Vance v. Ball State University, the court made it more difficult for an employee to sue an employer over charges of workplace harassment by narrowly defining who constitutes a supervisor.

“The Vance decision said that supervisors are people who can make tangible employment decisions: They can hire, fire, promote — things like that — and that is important because when you decide whether an employer is liable for a hostile work environment, if it’s the supervisor who created the hostile work environment, the employer has a lot fewer defenses than if it’s a co-worker,” said Matthew Nelson, partner with Warner Norcross.

The decision was split 5-4 with the conservative justices holding the majority.

The other case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, dealt with employee retaliation claims.

The Supreme Court’s decision puts the burden of proof on the employee to prove he or she was fired, or the recipient of an adverse employment decision, because of the complaint specifically — not just that the complaint was a factor in the employment decision.

“If the court had ruled the other way, it would have made it much more likely that employers would have to end up settling claims that didn’t have any merit,” explained Nelson.

The reason, according to Nelson, is that employers are weighing the likelihood of a lawsuit when they make the decision to go ahead with firing an employee despite a claim of discrimination. The court’s ruling makes it easier for the employer to go through with a firing decision.

“If you can’t prove that it was because you made the complaints, then the employer is not liable,” Nelson said.

West Michigan human resources professionals have been wrestling with this topic recently, with several businesses mentioning examples during recent seminars and conferences, explaining they’ve found themselves at the point of firing an employee for tardiness, no shows or even theft, when a discrimination claim is suddenly lodged and the business has to rethink its plans to fire an employee due to the pending claim.

Nelson said that Justice Anthony Kennedy addressed that issue specifically in his majority opinion.

According to Helson, Kennedy essentially said, “If we don’t adopt the rule that we are adopting, then when someone realizes that they are probably on the way out the door and then they quick make a claim, then one of two things happen: Either they get a severance so they will give up their claims and there’s a settlement, essentially, or they don’t get fired even though they otherwise would have, and we can’t reward people for making this stuff up.”

The case received support from 12 states, including Michigan, all of which signed on to an amicus brief in support of the outcome reached this week.

The case received the same 5-4 split as Vance v. Ball State University.

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