Two recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court could have an enormous impact on Connecticut businesses. One ruling gives employers a more concise definition to work with when facing claims of workplace harassment. The other provides more specific rules for courts deciding retaliation claims.

A black catering worker was the plaintiff in the harassment lawsuit. She accused a colleague, whom she characterized as her supervisor, of slapping her and using racial slurs; when she complained to her employer, nothing changed. As a result, she sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying that her workplace had become a racially hostile work environment.

The question for the courts was not whether the conduct constituted harassment but whether the colleague was the plaintiff’s supervisor. In claims like this, the harasser must be the plaintiff’s supervisor in order for the employer to be liable for the conduct.

The plaintiff lost her case and lost the appeal. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the matter to settle a split among the circuits and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In a 5-4 decision, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s — and the EEOC’s — argument that a supervisor is anyone who has “significant discretion” over another worker’s daily tasks. Rather, the court said, a supervisor is someone who can hire or fire, someone who can “effect a ‘significant change in employment status.'”

The second case involved a retaliation claim, also under Title VII. The facts are a little more involved than the first case, but the court took a similar approach. We’ll get into more detail in our next post.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “High Court Limits Workplace Discrimination Claims,” Annie Youderian, June 24, 2013Courthouse News Service, “Retaliation Verdict Was Too Hasty, Justices Rule,” Barbara Leonard, June 24, 2013