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U.S. Supreme Court Rulings Favor Employers

U.S. Supreme Court Rulings Favor Employers

On June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions toughening standards for workers bringing discrimination or retaliation claims involving workplace harassment. In one case, Vance v. Ball State University, et al., a catering worker sued Ball State alleging she had endured racial harassment by a woman she characterized as a supervisor. The University claimed the alleged harasser was not a supervisor. This distinction is important because an employer’s liability for workplace harassment depends on the status of the harasser. The Court narrowed the definition of a supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII to only those persons with the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline workers. Previously, in line with prior Court decisions, EEOC Guidance policies had included not only those with specific authority over the employee, but also included anyone with authority to direct or oversee a person’s daily work or schedule.

In the second case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, Respondent, Dr. Nassar, who is of Middle Eastern descent, claimed his supervisor was biased against him because of his religion and ethnic heritage. Nassar complained to his supervisor and to his supervisor’s supervisor. After Dr. Nassar was offered a position at the medical center, he wrote a letter about the discrimination and the complaints he had made to the supervisor’s chain of command. The job offer was then withdrawn. Nasser alleged it was withdrawn in retaliation for his complaints of harassment. A jury found in his favor and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. But, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved by principles of but-for causation. The Court placed a stricter standard of proof on plaintiffs and said that an employee who brings a retaliation claim must prove the employer’s action was actually motivated by the employee’s discrimination complaint and not some other reason.

Both cases split along the court’s conservative/liberal divide with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito backing the employers while the dissenting Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayer and Kagan sided with the workers. Previously, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which oversees Arizona among other western states had adopted the EEOC’s more expansive definition of a supervisor. With the Court’s narrowed definition of a supervisor, a company faces vicarious (or strict) liability only when the “harasser” is an individual who has the power to take tangible employment decisions against an employee, such as hiring, firing, promoting or demoting. In her dissent in Nassar, Justice Ginsburg expressed her belief that the majority’s opinion reins in retaliation claims and misapprehends what the Court’s decisions teach. As to retaliation claims, a plaintiff must now prove that the desire to retaliate was the sole (“but-for”) cause of the adverse employment action. It is no longer enough to show that retaliation was a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.

NHTSA records confirm: August is a dangerous month for driving

Did you know that your brain is 80% water?
Or that Friday, January 4, 2013 was National Trivia Day?
Or that August is the most dangerous month to drive?

From time to time, we come across random facts that deserve sharing. Number 3 above is one of those.

Over the years of representing police officers and their family members injured in auto accidents, we’ve noticed an uptick in auto accidents in the late Summer. It turns out, it wasn’t our imaginations. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records going back to 1994, August is the most dangerous month for traffic accidents—and Saturday is the most dangerous day! NHTSA believes the reason behind these statistics is that during the month of August more people are out on the road driving more miles than other times of the year.

Be careful this month.

California judge bars voter-approved pension cuts for city workers

A state court judge has barred the city of San Jose, California, from imposing voter-approved pension cuts on current municipal workers in a ruling with implications for cash-strapped local governments across the United States.

As public employee unions and many U.S. cities lock horns over cuts in retirement costs blamed for municipal budget crises, Superior Court Judge Patricia Lucas ruled that a ballot initiative forcing workers to contribute more to their pensions was invalid.

In her “tentative” ruling, dated from last week but publicly released on Monday, Lucas said the city was entitled under the ballot measure to cut workers’ pay to save money, but she held that vested pension benefits were protected by state law and thus off limits.

The court fight in San Jose over pensions has been closely watched because other cities in California, and across the country, are targeting cuts in existing retirement plans as a way to reduce budget deficits.

The emergency manager appointed to oversee the finances of bankrupt Detroit has said he wants to slash pension costs there, a move already under challenge by public employee unions in that city.

The bankruptcies of Detroit and the southern California city of San Bernardino have set up proxy battles between Wall Street bondholders and pension funds over who should take the greater hit when a local government goes broke.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, encouraged voters in his city to back municipal pension cuts he proposed as part of last year’s Measure B, which drew 70 percent support at the polls.

It called for city workers, including police, firefighters and other employees, to contribute up to 16 percent more toward their pensions.

The unions challenged the measure, leading to Judge Lucas’ ruling in Santa Clara County Superior Court. Her decision is likely to be appealed.

No city has as serious a pension issue as Chicago, reports CNBC’s Scott Cohn. Nationwide, the municipal pension debt ranges from $800 billion-$4 trillion, he adds.

Reed also is pressing for a statewide ballot initiative next year that would give cities across California the authority to reduce pension benefits.

In a statement, Reed welcomed the judge’s ruling on pay cuts, but added: “Unfortunately, the judge’s decision to invalidate certain portions of Measure B also highlights the fact that current California law provides cities, counties and other government agencies with very little flexibility in controlling their retirement costs.”

Sergeant Jim Unland of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, said, “We’re happy about the ruling. We’ve been saying for two years that cutting pensions was illegal and now we have a judge saying that.”