Supreme Court to Answer Employment Law Question

We all know it’s illegal for a company to fire an employee in retaliation for complaints about sexual harassment or discrimination or any reason falling under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.hammertofall.jpg

Such protections have been in place for 50 years and our Santa Ana employment lawyer have little doubt that companies know better.

But what if discrimination or complaints of sexual harassment are only part of the reason you were fired? What if adverse employment action was taken against you for other reasons – in addition to the alleged discriminatory factors?

Such arguments have long been a copout used by companies attempting to avoid serious penalties for breaking the law. They try to argue that, “No, no – it wasn’t the fact that she complained about being sexually harassed. It was because she was a bad worker.”

But now, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take on the issue as it has been raised in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Naiel Nassar. The justices’ decision in this case could impact the burden of proof required of all wrongfully terminated workers in the country.

On the one hand, if the court sides with the employer, it would no longer be enough for plaintiffs to simply provide evidence that sexual harassment or discrimination existed and that it was a factor in the adverse employment action. They would be forced to take it a step further to show it was the only or primary reason for the adverse employment action.

On the other hand, if the court sides with the former employee in this case, plaintiffs need only show that such harassment or discrimination existed and that it was at least part of the reason for the negative employment actions.

Specifically in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Naiel Nassar, a medical doctor had filed a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, a hospital and the supervisor of the infectious diseases department, saying he was discriminated against due to his Middle Eastern descent. Disparaging remarks regarding him and his race were reportedly made by the supervisor to his colleagues. She one time stated that “Middle Easterners are lazy” and complained to a co-worker when “another one” was hired.

The plaintiff said that the supervisor more closely scrutinized his work and billing than she did the other doctors. When he resigned due to the harassment, he fired off a letter explaining why – and named names. This resulted in him being denied a position in a different branch of the same health system.

The doctor then filed a civil discrimination lawsuit – and won, $3 million.

But the hospital appealed, saying that the court made several errors. The appellate court affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded the case back to the lower court for a recalculation of award.

But a key issue that the hospital raised was its claim that even if discrimination existed, his complaint of it wasn’t the sole reason for any negative employment actions taken against him. It was also a result of his work.

In its request for a hearing with the U.S. Supreme Court, the hospital’s lawyers note that while the earlier decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins required only that a plaintiff prove that discrimination was a “motivating factor” for negative employment action, a contrasting decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. held that the ADEA legislation of 1967 required proof that the discrimination was the “but-for cause” of the negative action.

The Supreme Court agreed just this month to take the case on, and it will be one of the last cases the justices will hear this term, with a decision expected in June.

If you are a victim of sexual harassment in Orange County, contact the Employment Law Team at (877) 529-4545. Serving Ontario, Riverside and the entire Los Angeles area.

Additional Resources:
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Naiel Nassar, Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Oct. 17, 2012, Supreme Court of the United States
More Blog Entries:
New California Employment Laws Start Jan. 1, 2013, Jan. 3, 2013, Santa Ana Employment Lawyer Blog