U.S. Supreme Court places new limits on discrimination claims

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

GavelThe U.S. Supreme Court this morning ruled on Fisher v. Universtiy of Texas, the affirmative action case which has been pending since last October. In a 7-1 decision (Justice Kagan is recused in this case), Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the court, with Justice Ginsberg the loan dissenter.

The Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit court's grant of summary judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded back to the Fifth Circuit, because the circuit court did not apply the strict scrutiny standard of review articulated in the Grutter and Bakke affirmative action cases in granting summary judgment. "The
reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."

There was a concurring opinion by Justice Scalia, who said that because the petitioner did not ask the Court to overrule Grutter, he joins the opinion of the Court in full. This is a hint to the petitioner to ask the Supreme Court to overrule Grutter when this case returns to the Supreme Court after a decision on remand.

There was also a concurring opinion by Justice Thomas who, unlike Justice Scalia, did not want to wait for procedural due process. Justice Thomas said that he was ready to overrule Grutter now.

The Grutter v. University of Michigan Law School case was a 2003 decision in which the Court held that the University of Michigan Law School could use race as one factor in its admissions process as part of its efforts to create a diverse student body.

Based upon the opinion today, it would appear the court is signaling its openness to reconsider its Grutter decision at a future date.

Here is the opinion in Fisher (.pdf).

In two discimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court narrowed the rights of claimants under existing Title VII jurisiprudence.

In a 5-4 opinion by Justice Alito in Vance v. Ball State University, the court rejected an EEOC guideline on who counts as a supervisor for purposes of respondeat superior vicarious liabilty. The Court held that an employer is a supervisor for vicarious liabilty under Title VII only if she has the power given by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. The Court defined "tangible employment action" to include actions that have a "significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits."

Under current Title VII jurisprudence, a company is automatically liable for any discrimination by a supervisor; it is liable for co-worker discrimination only if the victim complains about it to management and the management does nothing to stop it. By limiting who counts as a supervisor, the Court has narrowed the scope of vicarious liability, which is a victory for employers.

Here is the opinion in Vance (.pdf).

In a 5-4 opinion by Justice Kennedy in UT Southwestern v. Nassar, the court rejected the standard of proof in discrimination claims for retaliation claims under Title VII. The statute provides that discrimination need only be a "motivating factor" in the retaliation. The Court held that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of "but for" causation, not the lesser causation standard stated in the law. The plaintiff must now show that the employer would not have taken the challenged action (e.g., termination) "but for" the employee having filed an EEOC complaint. This is another victory for employers.

Here is the opinion in
Nassar (.pdf).

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the rare occasion to read a statement from the bench after today's opinions were announced. In both of her dissents in Vance and Nassar, Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to overturn the Court's decision. Justice Ginsburg's bench statement said of Vance and Nassar that "Both 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."

Justice Ginsburg is referring to the court's decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), which was overturned by an an act of Congress, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. The
audio tapes of bench statements are eventually released and made
available online at oyez.org.

It is difficult to imagine that the current Tea-Publican controlled Congress, which is as hostile to the rights of workers as are the conservative activist Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, is going to consider legislation to reverse the court's interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as Justice Ginsburg suggests. it is going to take the election of a Democratic Congress, as it did to reverse the Ledbetter decision.

The Court announced that it will release more opinions on Tuesday. The Chief Justice usually makes an announcement at the end of the second-to-last day, and he did not make such an announcement today. Court observers anticipate that decisions will be announced on Tuesday and at least one additional day. There are six merit case decisions remaining to be announced.

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