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Workplace discrimination rulings set disappointing precedence

Acts of mistreatment play out in workplaces across the state of Minnesota and around the country every day. Employees often know that they have encountered inappropriate behavior when it happens, but sometimes it can be difficult to say whether or not that behavior is actually illegal. In the event that a lower court’s workplace discrimination ruling is contested, the U.S. Supreme Court decides on how employment law and discrimination legislation should be interpreted. Two recent rulings made by the country’s highest court may affect future cases around the country and leave some victims with little legal recourse.

According to the precedence set by the Supreme Court back in 1989, an employee can claim retaliation if the employer’s actions were inspired, at least in part, by discrimination. The long-standing ruling, which prohibits employers from acting against employees with accusations of discrimination, has been revised.

The Supreme Court now requires victims to prove that their employer’s allegedly discriminatory actions were driven solely by retaliation. The 5/4 vote means that unless a worker is able to show their employer had no other reason to reprimand or fire them, even valid complaints of retaliation may be dismissed.

The Court also revised the definition for who is considered a supervisor under the law, making it harder for some victims to hold their employer responsible for workplace discrimination and harassment. By overriding the current understanding of the supervisory role to mean the individual must have the authority to make real employment decisions, the Supreme Court prohibits some workers from filing suits against coworkers.

One dissenting justice recognized that the rulings may serve to condone employment discrimination instead of combat it. While it is yet to be seen how these decisions may influence other courts, they will likely make it more difficult for victims to be heard. 

Source: npr.org, “Court Rulings Complicate Discrimination Suits For Employees,” Nina Totenberg, Sommer Ingram, June 24, 2013

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