Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Let's Get a Grip, Employees' Rights Did Not End Yesterday

Reporting is no easy task. But I have heard several reports concerning the two Supreme Court decisions yesterday that  convey misleading information, or at least don't put it in proper context.  An example is By 5-4, a More Hostile Workplace by New York Times editorial board member Teresa Tritch.

My comments on the two decisions, Vance v. Ball State and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar with links to the decision themselves, are here and here.

There is no doubt that the employer prevailed in both cases, and that employers will benefit from the two decision in the future. But implying they will lead to a more hostile workplace or some of the other ills being proclaimed, are off the mark.

The starting point of any discussion about the efficacy of employment law should start with a basic premise -- once an employer has been sued they have lost. The only question is how little they have lost. See (albeit in another context) my explanation of that point. Bullying As a Cause of Action - One Large Step Closer.

Secondly, by definition all employees who bring cases based on their termination come from a pre-selected pool. That pool consists of individuals intentionally selected by a business manager or group of managers as not working out as an employee, or in cases of economic driven layoffs, not being the best to keep.

You don't have to accept that all employers are free of discriminatory motives, although I would argue most are, to understand that just based on the hassle and cost of terminating an employee, not to mention the concern of being sued, that is not an action that will be taken lightly. Thus you should not expect that all terminated employees would have meritorious claims or that there should be some 50/50 split. That employers "win" most cases should be the rational rule, not some surprise. (Even then see prior paragraph, how "wins" by employers are really minimized losses.)

With that small bit of context, which almost is never recognized in such articles, here are some additional comments (portions of the article in italics)
But according to a 5 to 4 decision by the Supreme Court today, the answer is no. With that ruling, the conservative majority — Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas — has left many victims of workplace harassment without legal recourse.
No victims of workplace harassment are without legal recourse. The importance of whether someone was a supervisor goes back to an earlier pair of Supreme Court decisions in which the Court determined what standard would be utilized to decide harassment cases. The Court decided that in cases of co-employees the standard would be negligence, that is, did the employer know (or should have known) about the harassment and failed to take action.

In the case of  harassment by "supervisors" the court held that there were two types of harassment. In those where in addition to the harassment there was a "tangible employment action," then the standard was strict liability, the employer would have no defense. However, if there was harassment by a supervisor, but no tangible employment action, the employer would be strictly liable unless it could establish a two part affirmative defense.

In other words, the manner of proof depends on the status of the harasser and whether there was any tangible job action. There are three buckets:
  1. co-workers (or third parties);
  2. supervisors + tangible employment action; and
  3. supervisors with no tangible employment action.
Based on yesterday's decision, more people in the work force fall into bucket 1, as opposed to buckets 2 and 3. Each bucket is protected from harassment, just in different ways.

To be fair, Tritch later qualifies her earlier statement:
Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers are liable for discrimination by a “supervisor,” but not by co-workers (unless the victim has reported abuse by co-workers to a supervisor who does nothing to remedy the situation.)
The relegation of the whole first bucket to the parenthetical shows a misunderstanding of how harassment law works. It also fails to mention that the negligence standard covers not only situations where abuse was reported and the employer failed to act, but situations where the employer should have known abuse was occurring and failed to act.

What Justice Alito was doing was defining what standard would apply. Since there are different methods of proof, it is not insignificant, but it is hardly the end of the world and it is certainly not removing protection from harassment from any employee.

In the Nassar case, Tritch starts out on a wrong foot:
A second employment case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center versus Naiel Nassar, decided by the same 5 to 4 majority also thwarts the ability of employees to sue for discrimination under Title VII.
The whole basis of Nassar is that there are different standards, in different parts of the statute, for discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. Nassar has absolutely no impact on any employee claiming that they have been discriminated against because of their race, color, national origin, religion or sex, the five protected categories under Title VII. It only deals with retaliation.

The biggest error is this:
The university medical center appealed, saying that for Dr. Nassar to prevail, he had to show that retaliation was the sole factor leading to the job denial.

Tritch later repeats that mistake saying Justice Kennedy said that Nassar had to "show that retaliation was the sole factor in the job denial."

The trouble is he does not, even after yesterday's decision.

There are at least three different standards for finding liability in employment cases. The easiest way to show the difference is to use mathematical terms, although it is admittedly an oversimplification:
  1. motivating factor - Means that the person making the challenged decision had both legal and illegal motives in making the decision. For e.g. if 40% of the reason for firing an employee was her sex, and 60% her attendance, she could establish sex was a motivating factor.
  2. but for - Means that in the same case, the employee would not have been fired for her attendance if she were a man. Using the mathematical terminology, she would have to show that sex was 51% of the reason she was fired.
  3. sole reason - The employee would have to show that sex was 100% the reason she was fired.
If as Tritch said, the Supreme Court had held that an employee had to show retaliation was the sole reason, it would have been a really big deal. But the Court didn't. It held that you had to use test #2, but-for, not test #1, motivating factor.

Again, I am not saying it is not a victory for employers, nor insignificant. However, I would argue that in all fairness if it is not the only reading of the law as written, it is at least a fair reading of the law on which reasonable minds could differ.

It also is a repeat of what the Supreme Court decided was the standard in ADEA cases in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, and although there were similar cries that the world was ending for age cases, I haven't seen any support that has actually happened in the four years since Gross was decided.

There are also good reasons why motivating factor is not a workable standard for use when we have jury trials. In fact I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to that effect when they were considering legislatively reversing Gross. See link here. I would like to say my testimony persuaded them otherwise, but I am fairly certain it had more to do with legislative grid-lock than anything I had to say.

Employers definitely won yesterday. But in a system where employers lose just by being sued, to imply that these were drastic decisions demolishing the protections of the workplace, just goes too far.

I mean,
The question now is how far and how deeply the infection will spread before Congress passes legislation to establish the E.E.O.C’s reasonable definition of “supervisor” as the law of the land.

Really? Let's all get a grip.

For example, one lawyer writes: "Arguably, Nassar is a natural outgrowth of the 2009 Gross decision, but the law is now clear that a plaintiff must show that his or her protected activity was the singular cause of the employer’s action, not just one of the causes."

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