Supreme Court swings toward business in rulings

The Supreme Court weighed in on the nation’s labor versus corporations debate this week making it harder for workers to sue their employers over harassment, discrimination and retaliation issues.

In two different cases affecting workers nationwide, conservatives on the court sided with corporations in a 5-to-4 vote.

The decisions come amid heightened tensions between organized labor and their employers in the Bay Area as BART workers consider a Monday morning strike and concessionaires continue to picket at AT&T Park.

Unions in both cases say their workers should be rewarded for performing well. BART maintains a 96 percent on time rating while company profits have sky rocketed at AT&T Park thanks to the Giants success.

The two Supreme Court cases, meanwhile, decided during the so-called flood-season, the court’s busiest time of year as it struggles to finish business by the end of June, tip the scales against labor.

In the first case, the court redefined the definition of a supervisor in Vance v Ball State University to mean only someone with the power to hire and fire.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority said employees are supervisors only:

 “… if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”

They also made it more difficult for whistle blowers facing retaliation saying that victims must prove their company singled them out for punishment because of their whistle blowing activity.

 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disagreed with the majority in both cases and in an unusual move read her dissent from the bench saying the court:

“… ignores the conditions under which members of the work force labor.”

In the first case, the court decided that Maetta Vance, a caterer, couldn’t sue her employer, Ball State University, over racial harassment claims because her manager, Shaundra Davis, didn’t have the power to hire or fire her.

Even though the manager had authority over Vance’s day-to-day working environment, the court considered her merely a co-worker, not a supervisor.

The case involves Title VII, which makes it illegal for a company to racially discriminate against its workers and holds companies automatically liable a supervisors’ actions. If the person is merely a co-worker, as the court decided in this case, the worker must prove the company is negligent, which is much harder.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg went on to say:

 “Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court to correct the Court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII,”

In a separate case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v Nassar, the court decided Dr. Naiel Nassar couldn’t sue his former employer, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, after they objected to Parkland Hospital offering him an employment offer, which was then withdrawn.

The court said workers must prove their companies were retaliating against them and not taking the action for another reason.

How these decisions will affect worker lawsuits in the Bay Area and across the nation remains to be seen, it appears clear however that the burden of proof has shifted to workers.