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Supreme Court Limits Employment Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

Filed under: Benefits

Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) forbids discrimination related to compensation and terms, conditions or privileges of employment based on the reasons mentioned above. Title VII also prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for opposing employment discrimination or filing an employment discrimination claim.

On June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions that limit employer liability for discrimination under Title VII.


Under Title VII, an employer may be liable for employment discrimination committed by another employee in certain circumstances, depending upon whether the employee is considered a "co-worker" or a "supervisor."

  • If discrimination is committed by the victim's co-worker, the employer will be liable only if it was negligent in responding to the discrimination.
  • If the discrimination is committed by an employee who is a "supervisor," the employer may be automatically liable for the discrimination.

In this case, the Supreme Court limited the scope of employees that could qualify as a "supervisor" under Title VII. The plaintiff, Maetta Vance, claimed that she was harassed on the basis of race by an employee that she viewed as a supervisor. Vance argued that an employee is a "super-visor" if he or she has the authority to control another employee's daily activities and evaluate performance. The employer, on the other hand, argued that an employee must have more power, such as the ability to hire, fire or promote the employee, to be considered a "supervisor."

The Supreme Court agreed with the employer, ruling that an employee is considered a "supervisor" under Title VII only if he or she was given authority by the employer to take tangible employment actions (such as hiring, firing, demoting or disciplining) against the complaining employee. Thus, only those employees who have the authority to take tangible employment actions can subject an employer to automatic liability for employment discrimination.

According to the Court, Vance did not provide enough evidence that her harasser could be considered a "supervisor" under this limited definition.


In addition to prohibiting employment discrimination, Title VII also prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who opposes unlawful discrimination or participates in an employment discrimination proceeding.

In 1991, Congress amended Title VII to lower the standard for an employee to prove employment discrimination. Under this amendment, if an employee files an employment discrimination claim against an employer, the employee must only show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in the employment decision. Even if the employer can show that it would have taken the same action anyway, the employee would win the case as long as he or she could prove that discrimination was a motivating factor.

In this case, the Supreme Court determined that this "motivating factor" standard does not apply to claims of retaliation. The plaintiff, Dr. Naiel Nassar, claimed that he was denied permanent employment at a medical center after complaining about discrimination by his supervisor. The employer argued that, regardless of any retaliatory intent, it would not have hired him anyway for perfectly legitimate reasons.

The Court ruled that the "motivating factor" standard applies only to claims of "discrimination," meaning claims of discrimination based on things like race, sex or religion, and not claims of retaliation. Instead, the Court imposed a higher "but-for" standard — an employee must prove that the employer would not have taken the adverse employment action but for (if not for) the discrimination. Thus, even if the employer admitted that it had a discriminatory reason for taking the adverse employment action, the employer would not be liable for retaliation if it could prove that it would have taken the same action anyway.

This article is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel for legal advice.

© 2013 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved. 6/13

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