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Hiring & Firing Bytes: Supreme Court Edition

Many gay-rights supporters are celebrating Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor, which struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that, among other things, denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The good news for gay couples is that, now that Section 3 of the act has been ruled unconstitutional, same-sex couples in the 13 states (and the District of Columbia) that recognize their marriages will be entitled to the same spousal benefits—e.g., health insurance, Social Security and retirement, disability, emergency medical rights, a survivor’s exemption from the estate tax, and leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, among others—that are currently given to married heterosexual couples.

The bad news for gay couples is that those living in the states that do not recognize same-sex marriages could be left out in the cold, the Huffington Post notes.

While most eyes this week were on the Supreme Court’s high-profile rulings in the cases of United States v. Windsor, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (affirmative action), and Shelby County v. Holder (voting rights), the court also issued two other rulings, both set at public universities, that could make it harder for workers to sue their employers for harassment and discrimination.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the court handed a win to employers by siding with Ball State against a black dining-services worker who said she had been harassed by white co-workers. The case centered on who qualifies as a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits, Sara Hebel, an editor at The Chronicle, wrote this week. The legal definition of supervisor was key, she explained, because under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the court had previously held employers accountable for “damages resulting from workplace harassment committed by an employee who is in a supervisory role and thus acts as its agent.”

By restricting the legal definition of who can technically be considered a supervisor, the court, in effect, has made it easier for employers to dodge lawsuits, Kyle Stock, an associate editor at Businessweek.com, observed. For harassment between co-workers with little managerial power over one another, employers are liable under federal law only if the victim can demonstrate that the employer knew about the harassment and turned a blind eye to it, he explained. That’s harder to show.

Meanwhile, in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the court ruled against a former assistant professor and physician at the medical center, Naiel Nassar, who sued it in 2008 for allegedly retaliating against him for complaining about discrimination. The ruling weakened workers’ rights by effectively raising the bar for what workers must prove in retaliation lawsuits against their employers, Audrey Williams June, a senior reporter at The Chronicle, wrote in another article this week:

In the opinion handed down on Monday, a majority of the Supreme Court justices held that plaintiffs like Dr. Nassar can’t just show that retaliation was a motivating factor for an employer’s action against them, as the Fifth Circuit court had allowed. Instead, wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority, retaliation claims filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 require “proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer.”

Ms. June noted, however, that while the ruling may make it harder for disgruntled employees to sue their employers for retaliation or wrongful termination, it wasn’t a total win for the medical center, as the justices sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to apply the tougher standard, known as “but for” causation, to Dr. Nassar’s retaliation claim. (“The but-for standard takes its name from the idea that the plaintiff would not have experienced the harm alleged in the case but for an illegal action,” she explained.)

Clearly, those decisions will have ramifications for employers. What’s your institution doing to prepare for the changes to come?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user StockMonkeys.com.]

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