Category Archives: US Supreme Court

US Supreme Court Rules for Employee on "Cat’s Paw" Theory

The United States Supreme Court recently unanimously issued a major victory for employees under “USERRA“, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq., on the “cat’s paw” theory in employment discrimination claims. The decision was in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, — U.S. — (March 1, 2011) (opinion at Google Scholar). Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the unanimous court. Justice Alito wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, which Justice Thomas joined. Justice Kagan did not participate in the decision.

What is the “Cat’s Paw” Scenario?

Drew's kitty-cat, HannaSo, what the heck is the “cat’s paw” theory? Does it explain why my cat, pictured at the left, is staring so intently at you?

First, to define “cat’s paw” in a non-legal context, the Webster’s Online dictionary defines a “cat’s paw” as: “A person used by another to gain an end.” The term arises out of a fable in which a a shrewd monkey tricks a cat into pulling roasting chestnuts out of a fire—the cat gets its paw burned, and the monkey gets the chestnuts and scampers away unhurt.

Continue reading US Supreme Court Rules for Employee on “Cat’s Paw” Theory

Analysis: The "No Blood No Foul" Rule. When is an Employer’s Conduct Severe Enough to Constitute Retaliation?

I previously wrote about the Supreme Court’s retaliation decision in Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“Burlington Northern v. White”), in which the US Supreme Court substantially broadened the ability of employees to file retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a unanimous (9-0) decision.

National Basketball Association I wanted to set out some additional thoughts about Burlington Northern, because it addresses an issue that has troubled the courts in interpreting the federal anti-discrimination laws: When is an employer’s conduct serious enough in disadvantaging an employee so that the employee has a claim under the employment discrimination laws? The answer is easy when the employer’s decision affects the employee’s pocket book, like with termination, failure to hire, demotions, and the like. The answer has been much harder when the employer’s conduct didn’t directly affect the employee’s pocket book.

NBA referees struggle with a similar issue: where is there enough physical contact on the court to justify calling a foul on a player. So let’s explore some parallels between these employment discrimination issues and the NBA’s “no blood no foul” rule.

The NBA’s “No Blood No Foul” Rule

If you watch National Basketball Association games, you might be struck by how much physical contact there is on the court and how rarely the referees call personal fouls over that physical contact. Fans of the NBA have only a partially kidding way to refer to the “standard” by which the referees decide how much contact will result in a personal foul being called. It’s the “no blood no foul” rule. In other words, the referees will allow a lot of physical contact, and will only call a foul when someone gets bloodied as a result of the contact.

Let’s assume, with our tongues in our cheeks, that there is such a rule (no blood no foul) that NBA referees apply, regardless of what is written in the Official Rules. The idea behind the “no blood no foul” rule is this: there is so much fast-paced hurley-burly contact on the basketball court, much of which makes it more exciting for the fans, that calling a foul for any physical contact (or a lower defined level of physical contact) would slow down the game for fans and make the game less enjoyable, unreasonably impede the skill of the players, and makes it impossibly hard for officials to identify “contact”. So the appearance of blood is a more “objective” indication that the contact really mattered and really constituted an unfair interference with the other player.

The Supreme Court Struggles With “When is There a Foul”?

Courts for years have struggled with the employment discrimination equivalent of the “no blood no foul” rule. For the courts, assuming unlawful discrimination occurred: when is the consequence of the discrimination serious enough and objectively discernible so that courts will recognize a claim and intervene by activating the court’s process and potentially awarding damages.

Except for situations involving hostile work environment, the courts have translated the NBA’s blood requirement into a tangible economic consequence. Thus, much in the spirit of the NBA, the courts have said economic harm must be demonstrable as a result of discrimination, or else the courts won’t entertain the claim no economic consequence, no legal violation, case dismissed.

Continue reading Analysis: The “No Blood No Foul” Rule. When is an Employer’s Conduct Severe Enough to Constitute Retaliation?

President Obama Nominates Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor President Obama today announced (CNN story and video) his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, currently a Judge on the Second Circuit, to fill the position on the US Supreme Court to be vacated by the resignation of Justice David Souter.

Within a few hours of President Obama‘s announcement, the CATO Institute and The Heritage Foundation had significant articles devoted to attacking the nomination. Rush Limbaugh this afternoon called Judge Sotomayor a “racist”. Sean Hannity called her a “radical” who had made “outrageous” and “amazing” statements. The liberal sites raced out articles attacking the attackers and defending Judge Sotomayor (Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post).

The first item that has been circulating about Judge Sotomayor is a statement she made about appellate courts making “policy” during a panel discussion at Duke University in 2005 (note: this clip is lengthier, and provides much more context, than the clips played on most news sites):

Continue reading President Obama Nominates Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court

Arbitration Agreements in Union Contacts are Enforceable; US Supreme Court in Penn Plaza v. Pyett

USSupremeCourtRightFountain 4/1/09: The US Supreme Court ruled that “pre-dispute arbitration agreements” in collective bargaining agreements (union contracts) are enforceable, in Penn Plaza PLLC v. Pyett, 129 S. Ct. 1456 (2009) (5-4 decision).

This was an age discrimination case under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The plaintiff was a member of a union, and the collective bargaining agreement (union contract) required submitting age discrimination claims to binding arbitration.

The US Supreme Court had previously ruled, but not in a labor union setting, that arbitration agreements for ADEA claims were enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. (Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 26-33 (1991)). So the real issue in Penn Plaza was whether there would be a different result because of the union contract setting and the National Labor Relations Act.

Continue reading Arbitration Agreements in Union Contacts are Enforceable; US Supreme Court in Penn Plaza v. Pyett

US Supreme Court Broadens Definition of "Opposition"; for Retaliation Claims; Crawford v Metropolitan Government of Nashville, 1-26-09

1/26/09: In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, 129 S. Ct. 846 (2009), the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an employee engaged in protected activity under Title VII‘s retaliation provision by answering an employer’s questions in connection with a sexual harassment investigation started by company rumors about a male supervisor. Justice Souter wrote the majority opinion, joined by Roberts, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer. Justice Alito wrote an opinion, concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Thomas.

Ms. Crawford Responds to an Investigation into Sexual Harassment

USSupremeCourt Here is what happened: Rumors started circulating about sexually inappropriate behavior by a male supervisor, Gene Hughes, at “Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County” (“Metro”). A human resources employee started investigating, and asked Vicky Crawford whether she had seen any inappropriate behavior by Mr. Hughes. Crawford responded yes, and described several instances of sexually inappropriate behavior. For example, Ms. Crawford had asked Mr. Hughes “what’s up”, and he responded by grabbing his crotch and saying “you know what’s up”. On another occasion, Mr. Hughes grabbed Ms. Crawford’s head and pulled it toward his crotch. The human resources employee talked to two other employees who similarly reported sexually harassing behavior from Mr. Hughes.

Continue reading US Supreme Court Broadens Definition of “Opposition”; for Retaliation Claims; Crawford v Metropolitan Government of Nashville, 1-26-09

Supreme Court "fills in the blank" to recognize retaliation claims for federal employees under ADEA; Gomez-Perez v. Potter, 2008

USPS Logo 5-27-08: The US Supreme Court in Gomez-Perez v. Potter, 128 S. Ct. 1931 (2008) ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., prohibited retaliation against federal employees who had complained about age discrimination, even though the federal employee section of the ADEA did not expressly prohibit retaliation. This was a 6-3 decision. The majority opinion was written by Justice Alito, in which Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined. Justices Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas dissented, with dissenting opinions being written by Justices Roberts and Thomas.

The Gap in the Federal Employee Section of the ADEA

This was the problem under the ADEA: The ADEA‘s main section, in prohibiting discrimination against employees 40 and older, only deals with private industry employees and state government employees. I will call this section of the ADEA, the “private and state employee sections”.

Continue reading Supreme Court “fills in the blank” to recognize retaliation claims for federal employees under ADEA; Gomez-Perez v. Potter, 2008

US Supreme Court broadens scope of permissible evidence for proving discrimination; Sprint/United Management v. Mendelsohn; 2/26/08

US Supreme Court February 26, 2008: The United States Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn, 128 S. Ct. 1140 (2008) (FindLaw site opinion). The issue in this federal age discrimination case (ADEA) was whether the plaintiff could present evidence to the jury about other alleged older discrimination victims, where the decision made to terminate the other individuals was not made by the same decision-maker that terminated the plaintiff.

The employer (Sprint) contended that evidence of other alleged age discrimination victims was not admissible where the decision-makers for those other victims were different from the decision-makers who took action against the plaintiff.

The Supreme Court rejected the employer’s argument and said that the evidence of other victims might be admissible, even if different decision-makers were involved. The trial court should conduct a “balancing test” for admissibility of discrimination against other employees by different supervisors, where the relevance of the other employees’ situation is balanced against unfair prejudice to the employer.

US Supreme Court rules pay claims must be filed shortly after discriminatory decision; Ledbetter v Goodyear, 5/29/07

May 29, 2007: In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 550 U.S. 618, 128 S. Ct. 2162 (2007) (FindLaw site opinion), the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, issued an important decision in a sex discrimination case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which substantially limited the time period available to assert a claim for pay discrimination. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Eleventh Circuit in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Inc., 421 F.3d 1169 (11th Cir. 2005).

Ledbetter’s Claims of Sex Discrimination and Lower Pay, and the Trial Result

LillyLedbetter Ledbetter filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC in 1998 and then later in the year retired. She claimed that, years earlier in her career at Goodyear, male supervisors gave her bad performance reviews compared to what men received. She claimed that Goodyear awarded raises based on those performance reviews, so that her pay raises were reduced as a result of the discriminatory performance reviews.

Ledbetter went to trial and persuaded the jury that the performance reviews, years before she filed her EEOC charge, were discriminatory based on her sex, and the jury found her rights had been violated and awarded her damages based on her lower paychecks throughout her career. The trial judge entered a “judgment” in Ledbetter’s favor based on the jury’s verdict. So Ledbetter won at trial on her sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the jury verdict and trial court judgment for Ledbetter, and entered a judgment in favor of Goodyear, based on her failure to file her EEOC charge within 180 days of when the performance reviews had been conducted. The United States Supreme Court affirmed, meaning that Goodyear won.

Continue reading US Supreme Court rules pay claims must be filed shortly after discriminatory decision; Ledbetter v Goodyear, 5/29/07

US Supreme Court Makes it Easier to Prove Retaliation Claims, in Burlington Northern v. White, 2006

June 22, 2006: In Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“Burlington Northern v. White”), the US Supreme Court substantially broadened the ability of employees to file retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a unanimous (9-0) decision.

US Supreme Court The Supreme Court broadened retaliation claims in 2 ways:

First: Retaliatory conduct is not limited to employer’s action at the workplace, and it is not limited to action taken while the plaintiff is still working for the employer.

Second: Action by the employer may violate the anti-retaliation provision even if it does not cause a tangible loss, such as pay, for the plaintiff. The conduct may violate the law if it is “materially adverse” (as opposed to “trivial”) to the employee, and might dissuade a “reasonable worker” from “making or supporting a charge of discrimination”. So, for example, transfers to different positions, even though they involve no loss in pay or benefits or promotional opportunities, might constitute unlawful action because, if the transfer is to what a reasonable worker would view as a less attractive job, that might dissuade a reasonable worker from complaining of discrimination.