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by Jennifer Brown Shaw and Julia C. Melnicoe | The Daily Recorder | Jul 10, 2013

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series providing an overview of recent United States Supreme Court decisions in employment law. Part 2 of this article will be featured soon.

The United States Supreme Court issued several employment law-related decisions during the past year, all of which may affect California employers.

Vance v. Ball State University

An employer may be liable for harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it negligently allows unlawful co-worker harassment. An employer is “negligent” when it knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take appropriate corrective action. When the harasser is an employee’s supervisor, the employer is strictly liable for the supervisor’s conduct, even if the employer is unaware of the harassment, or takes corrective action.

Title VII does not define the term “supervisor.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has opined that anyone with the power to direct the victim’s work qualifies as a supervisor. Some courts have adopted the EEOC’s position. Others have required more than merely directing work, such as the ability to hire, fire, or take other tangible action against the victim.

The Supreme Court finally defined “supervisor” in Vance v. Ball State University. Vance claimed she was harassed on the basis of race by two supervisors while working in the University’s catering department. The Court of Appeals decided that no unlawful harassment occurred, because the male supervisor’s conduct was not based on race. In addition, the female supervisor did not qualify as a “supervisor” because she did not have authority to take disciplinary or other actions against Vance.

The Supreme Court decided that a “supervisor” must be empowered to take tangible employment actions against the victim, e.g., hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassigning work, or making a decision causing a significant change in benefits. This definition is narrower than the EEOC advocated. The Court’s standard applies only to Title VII cases. It is unlikely this new definition will apply to California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which, not surprisingly, defines “supervisor” much more broadly.

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

The Court decided in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar that the “but-for” causation standard applies to Title VII retaliation claims. The “but for” test means that the harm (i.e., negative treatment) would not have occurred if not for the plaintiff’s protected status.

Nassar was both a physician at the University’s medical center and a professor at the University. He accused his supervisor at the University of racial and religious bias, and applied to work solely at the medical center. The University refused to allow him to work at the medical center without a concurrent professorship, a decision which Nassar claimed was in retaliation for his previous discrimination complaints.

After Congress passed the 1991 amendments to Title VII, the plaintiff in a Title VII discrimination case must prove that her protected status (e.g., race, religion, gender) was one of the employer’s motives for taking adverse action, even if the employer also had other, legitimate motives. This is called the “motivating factor” standard. The 1991 amendments to Title VII did not expressly address retaliation claims.

The Supreme Court in Nassar decided that the 1991 amendments applied only to the portion of Title VII addressing discrimination. Therefore, the pre-amendment “but-for” test applies to retaliation claims.

The California Supreme Court’s recent decision in Harris v. City of Santa Monica allows employers to limit their liability under state law by proving the employee would have been treated the same even in the absence of an unlawful motive. In cases that do not present a mixed motive for the employer’s decision, the plaintiff must establish causation under a “motivating factor” standard.

Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk

Symczyk brought a collective action under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) against her employer, Genesis HealthCare Corp., for meal period violations. Because the suit was brought as a collective action rather than a federal class action, Symczyk’s coworkers were not automatically parties to the suit. They had to “opt-in” to join the lawsuit.

Soon after Symczyk filed the lawsuit, Genesis made her an “offer of judgment” (a formal settlement offer), which included all of the wages Symczyk demanded plus attorneys’ fees and costs. She did not accept. But Genesis filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the offer of judgment would have completely compensated Symczyk, so the lawsuit was “moot.” Symczyk admitted that the offer of judgment would have satisfied all of her possible claims.

The Supreme Court agreed with Genesis that its offer “mooted” Symczyk’s individual lawsuit, so the collective action could not proceed, either.

The reach of this case is limited because (1) Symczyk conceded that the offer of judgment would have fully satisfied her claims (which, of course, no one will do after this decision!); (2) California has its own statute regarding offers of compromise (Cal. Code of Civil Procedure section 998, which has different standards); and (3) unlike the FLSA “opt-in” procedure for FLSA collective actions, California has an “opt out” procedure for wage-hour class actions.