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Friday, April 01, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Employee Trifecta -- High Court Sides with Employees in Two Retaliation Cases and a Discrimination Case in 2011 So Far

On January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. North American Stainless that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who complain of discrimination by terminating the employment of closely related third-parties, such as spouses or family members. Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision covers a broad range of employer conduct and therefore is not limited to discriminatory actions affecting the terms and conditions of employment. It also prohibits employers from taking action that might dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. The Court held a reasonable employee would likely be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancĂ© would be fired.

On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Staub v. Proctor Hospital that if an employee or former employee can show that any of the supervisors involved in the line that lead to the ultimate employment action at issue, had a discriminatory intent or animus in their actions, then the action of that supervisor can form the basis for the employer's liability. It no longer matters that the non-decision-maker did not have power or control over the decision-maker. It also does not matter that the decision-maker made an independent review and analysis of the grounds for the adverse employment action if the supervisor holding the discriminatory animus was anywhere in the line that led up to the ultimate employment action. Employing the so-called “cat’s paw” theory of employment discrimination -- that an employer can be liable for the discriminatory animus of an employee who influences, but does not make, an ultimate employment decision – the Court held that “if a supervisor performs an act motivated by . . . animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable . . . .”

On March 22, 2011, the Court decided Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. In Kasten, the Court found that oral employee complaints alleging violations of the Federal Labor Standards Act need not be in writing to receive anti-retaliation protection. In a 6-2 decision, the Court interpreted the statutory phrase "filed any complaint" to include oral complaints. Reasoning that a narrower interpretation limited to written complaints would not further the remedial purpose of the Act, the Court ruled that oral complaints could be "filed" for purpose of anti-retaliation protection if properly made. Thus, the Court held that if an oral complaint is “sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of [employees'] rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection,” such an oral complaint may be protected by the FLSA.

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