The Supreme Court has had a powerful history of deciding pivotal cases in employment law. Supreme Court cases often form the backbone for important case law which employees and employers alike must rely on in order to argue successfully on a particular issue. With the precedence established at the Supreme Court level, an employment rights case can advance based on its adherence to the leading law on any given issue.
A number of well-known Supreme Court cases govern case law concerning employment rights. For instance, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green is well-known for establishing the elemental cause of action that must be proven in order to bring an employment discrimination case to court successfully.
Some employment law Supreme Court cases have dealt with specific federal statutes such as Corning Glass Works v. Brennan which dealt with the Equal Pay Act (EPA) or EEOC v. Wyoming which dealt specifically with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Other Supreme Court cases have addressed particular concepts or principles in employment law such as Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. which addresses sex-plus discrimination in the workplace.
Recent Employment Law Cases at the Supreme Court
The 2013-2014 Supreme Court term did not go without the a chance for the high court to address employment law issues. In fact, the court continued a tradition of outlining the scope of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act more clearly so that everyone is able to define their roles in relationship to the leading law on employment rights.
In University of Texas Southern Medical Center v. Nassar (2013), the court ruled in a narrow five to four decision on the proper standard for employment discrimination retaliation claims. The issue was whether an employee must prove that discrimination was a ‘motivating factor’ in an adverse employment decision or whether the employee must prove that he would have obtained the result sought but for the discrimination of his or her employer.
In Nassar, the Court held that the stricter “but for” standard dominates in retaliation claims based on the original intent of Congress.
Another recent employment law case reached the Supreme Court with significant impact. It, too, drew out stricter standards of proof required of plaintiffs in employment law cases, this time concerning the determination of ‘supervisor’ status under Title VII.
In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court ruled that, for purposes of Title VII, one is considered a supervisor only if they take “tangible employment action” concerning other employees. Conversely, those who simply manage day-to-day decisions concerning workers may not qualify.
Both these rulings have set the scene for upcoming Supreme Court decisions. Their strict construance of Title VII and its supporting statutes indicates that the court could swing in the opposite direction this term, this time in favor of employees.
Employment Law in the 2014-15 Supreme Court Term
Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean
On November 4th, the high court heard arguments in this high profile whistleblower case involving the issue of whether agencies have control of how much a whistleblower may disclose. Specifically, at issue is the interpretation of a federal statute which protects federal employee whistleblowers from enforcement action against them.
In the case, a formal federal air marshall disclosed timelapses in aviation security post-9/11 and was subsequently terminated by the Department of Homeland Security. According to the SCOTUS blog, the court appears likely to side with the plaintiff ruling that the disclosure was protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 (WPA).
EEOC v. Ambercrombie and Fitch
The petition for writ of certiorari in EEOC v. Ambercrombie and Fitch was granted in October of this year and di set for argument in early spring 2015. This case involves the issue of whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits an employer from firing an employee based on “religious observance and practice” specifically when the employer knows that accommodation is required because of direct explicit notice from the employee.
The case involves a Muslim woman discharged for failure to remove her hijab during an interview for a ‘model’ position at one of Ambercrombie’s mall branches. Ambercrombie and Fitch supervisors stated the hijab was a violation of company dress code, and thus made the woman ineligible for the position.
Title VII prohibits discrimination based on religion in all terms and conditions of employment, including hiring. This case is notable because it brings to the forefront a growing trend of discrimination against Muslims in employment and beyond.
Young v. United Parcel Service
At issue in Young v. UPS is the proper interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The question is does the PDA require an employer to accommodate pregnant workers who are “similar in their ability or inability to work” in comparison to non-pregnant workers.
This case involves a pregnant worker who was advised by doctors not to lift items over twenty pounds after she became pregnant. After relaying these recommendations to her supervisors, the worker was told she could not return to work in any job while pregnant as doing so would be a violation of company policy specific to her job assignment.
The PDA has been in the spotlight recently due to the EEOC’s recent release of pregnancy discrimination enforcement guidelines this summer. According to the guidance, even if an employee is acting in a pregnant employee’s best interest, treating a pregnant worker less favorably than other workers is a violation of federal law.
So far, the worker in this Supreme Court case has gained the support of the Justice Department as well as a number of civil labor unions, among others.
Ones to Watch
Each of these employment law cases address significant aspects of the employment law landscape and will have a major impact on both employees and employers alike throughout the country. These cases will definitely be worth watching for the 2014-15 Supreme Court term.