As 2013 draws to a fast-approaching close, it’s time to pause and reflect on the cases that made the headlines and shaped the employment discrimination law landscape. Looking back is also a excellent way to stay abreast of the latest developments, and setbacks, that keep fine-tuning Title VII and the myriad of state laws, federal statutes and policies protecting employee’s rights.

Supreme Court: Vance v. Ball State University
Our year review begins with a little noticed case that reached the Supreme Court in June of this year. Though its effects may not be fully felt until years in the future, most agree, this case was a major win for employers all over the nation, rather than employees.

In Vance, the Supreme Court put forward a narrow definition of “supervisor,” setting a new standard for the approach employees must take in order to successfully prove retaliation in employment discrimination cases involving workplace harassment.

The Supreme Court affirmed a 7th Circuit ruling in favor of Ball State employers that employment discrimination had not occurred.  The court found that Vance’s coworker was not in a position to take “tangible employment action against her.” Since, the co-worker, Saundra Davis, did not have the power to direct the terms and conditions of Vance’s employment, Ball State could not be liable for retaliation by a supervisor.

What it Means to You. Back in 1998, a case called Faragher established that it’s up to employees to prove employer negligence in preventing workplace harassment – and the status of the alleged harasser became extremely important. Unless employee-plaintiffs can prove that a harassing co-worker is a supervisor – someone who had enough authority to take action against them, retaliation and harassment claims against an employer may not stick.

Supreme Court: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar
Similar to the case above, the impact of Nassar is something that the employment law community will be keeping an eye on for future days. The Supreme Court again sided with employers, limiting the ability of employees to prove employment discrimination in a big way.

In Nassar, the court considered whether a mixed-motive claim is sufficient to successfully make a Title VII claim of retaliation. A mixed-motive claim asserts that at least one reason for an employment decision was discriminatory, though there may have been other legitimate reasons.

Ultimately, the court set aside several decades of precedence for proving retaliation by a supervisor. Retaliation claims now fall under a but-for causation scheme, making it much more difficult to prove than ever before.

What it Means to You. Under the Nassar causation scheme, employees can no longer successfully assert mixed-motive claims of retaliation. Instead, employees must now prove that retaliation was the sole reason for firing or demotion – a tall order to fill in most cases.

McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch/Bank of America
Notable for its large scale settlement award to the tune of $160 million dollars, the McReynolds case registers as a huge victory for race-based employment discrimination rights as well as a victory for employees across the nation.

The case was initially filed in 2005 and ran a circuitous route through the 7th Circuit to the Supreme Court and finally back again to the 7th Circuit where it finally obtained certification for its class of African American financial advisors in 2012. The suit was based on over 20 years of race-based discrimination in hiring and unequal account distribution by brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, now a subsidiary of Bank of America.

Lead plaintiff George McReynolds, along with approximately 1200 other black brokers, was awarded $160 million as part of a settlement agreement in August of this year. The amount makes this case the largest settlement in any employment discrimination case involving a US worker.

What it Means to You. McReynolds puts forward a possible milestone in the law governing class certification in employment discrimination cases. Class certification on such a large scale was possible, even after at first being denied in federal court, because Merrill Lynch had company-wide, discriminatory policies in place, the court ruled. This presented issues of Title VII violation that were common to the entire class of plaintiffs filing the claim. The result was a landmark settlement affecting the entire broker culture of the company.

Macy v. Holder
At the top of almost every employment discrimination news beat, Macy v. Holder marks a landmark win for transgender employees, as well as for the LGBT community as a whole.

Mia Macy, a transgender woman, was still presenting as a man when she applied for a job with the Bureau of Tobacco Firearms and Explosives in San Francisco. After an interview with the Director, she was told the job was hers pending no problems with a criminal background check. However, shortly after sending an email informing the Director of her transition from male to female, Macy was told the position was no longer available to her.

After investigating the case last year, the EEOC found that Macy, as a transgender worker, fell under the protection of Title VII, since the law prohibits discrimination based on gender – a groundbreaking decision noted throughout the leal community and the nation. The case was sent back to the Justice Department who found in July of this year that Macy had indeed been discriminated against based on her transgender status in violation of Title VII.

What it Means to You. Some experts refrain from touting the decision as a landmark. They say that it’s ultimately up to the Supreme Court to rule on whether transgender status is protected under Title VII. Still, the EEOC seems to be forging ahead with its determination and the federal government is upholding it as well. Macy means, possibly for the first time in history, federal case law protects transgender workers from discriminatory employment decisions.

Harris v. Santa Monica
Californian employees get curbed a bit with the ruling and impact of Harris v. Santa Monica – a California case limiting the ability of workers to prove retaliation under the California Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA).

When Harris reached the California Supreme Court, it ruled that, under FEHA, employees have the burden of proving that discrimination was a “substantial factor” in an employment decision. This was distinctly different from traditionally lower causation standards in cases of the past where discrimination need only be “a” motivating factor in employment decisions for a claim to be successful.

The ruling opened the door for employers to assert a “mixed-motive” defense in response to employee claims that discrimination is a substantial factor. The mixed-motive defense gives employers the opportunity to prove there were legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for an employment decision.

What it Means to You. Perhaps the biggest effect of the case is that, in addition to introducing the “substantial factor” standard, it also closed the door on awards for damages and backpay for California employees if the mixed-motive defense is successfully proven. The case clearly reflects a new trend in employment discrimination cases nationwide, moving away from low levels of mostly circumstantial evidence put forward as proof of employer violations.

Ever-Evolving Employee Protection
The law has come a long way since 1964, when Title VII first saw action, and landmark cases have given employment discrimination law many complexities. As lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants continued to hash out various statues, cases and policy surrounding the law in 2013, this year’s top cases accurately demonstrate that employment discrimination law continues to be a source of ever-evolving protection for employees.

If you feel you have been treated improperly by your employer or discriminated against, contact Shegerian & Associates today for your free consultation.