June 24, 2013

Supreme Court makes it harder to sue businesses 


By JESSE J. HOLLAND / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court on Monday decided to make it harder for Americans to sue businesses for retaliation and discrimination, leading a justice to call for Congress to overturn the court's actions.

click image to enlarge

TV crews wait outside the Supreme Court in Washington as key decisions are announced Monday.

The Associated Press

Related headlines

Court won't shield Pfizer from asbestos lawsuits

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused to shield Pfizer Inc. from some asbestos lawsuits connected to its Quigley Co. subsidiary, a bankrupt unit that stopped most operations in 1992.

The justices on Monday rejected Pfizer's appeal of a ruling that opened the New York-based drugmaker to some claims related to Quigley, which made asbestos-containing products for the steel industry from the 1940s to the 1970s. Pfizer acquired Quigley in 1968. Asbestos, once widely used an insulator, was later shown to cause cancer.

Pfizer, the world's largest drugmaker, contended that Quigley's bankruptcy proceedings insulated the parent company from suits filed under Pennsylvania state law by the Baltimore law firm of Peter Angelos.

The firm began suing Pfizer in Pennsylvania state courts in 1999, saying the company was legally responsible for some claims because its logo appeared on Quigley products.

Pfizer says it played no role in making or selling the Quigley products. A federal appeals court in New York said the claims against Pfizer could go forward.

The Obama administration urged the high court to reject Pfizer's appeal.
 

The court's conservatives, in two 5-4 decisions, ruled that a person must be able to hire and fire someone to be considered a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits, making it harder to blame a business for a co-worker's racism or sexism. The court then decided to limit how juries can decide retaliation lawsuits, saying victims must prove employers would not have taken action against them but for their intention to retaliate.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote both dissents for the court's liberal wing, and in a rare move, read them aloud in the courtroom. She said the high court had "corralled Title VII," a law designed to stop discrimination in the nation's workplaces.

"Both decisions dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended," said Ginsburg, who then called on Congress to change the law to overturn the court.

In the first case, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center wanted a discrimination lawsuit won by Dr. Naiel Nassar thrown out. Nassar, after complaining of harassment, left in 2006 for another job at Parkland Hospital, but the hospital withdrew its job offer after one of his former medical center supervisors opposed it. Nassar sued, saying the medical center retaliated against him for his discrimination complaints by encouraging Parkland to take away his job offer. A jury awarded him more than $3 million in damages.

The medical center appealed, saying the judge told the jury it only had to find that retaliation was a motivating factor in the supervisor's actions, called mixed-motive. Instead, it said, the judge should have told the jury it had to find that discriminatory action wouldn't have happened "but-for" the supervisor's desire to retaliate for liability to attach.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, agreed with the lower court and the university, saying people "must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer." But he didn't rule completely for the medical center, sending the case back to the lower courts after saying a decision on the resolution of the case "is better suited by courts closer to the facts of this case."

Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business' Small Business Legal Center, cheered the decision.

"If courts were allowed to label employees with little managerial authority as 'supervisors,' that would have substantially increased the number of frivolous lawsuits brought against small businesses and would have done little, if anything, to reduce harassment," she said. "For small businesses, the increased possibility of liability and ensuing costs would have been devastating. We are very pleased with the Supreme Court's decision."

In the second case, Maetta Vance, who was a catering specialist at Ball State University, accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005. Vance sued the school under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying the university was liable since Davis was her supervisor. But a federal judge threw out her lawsuit, saying that since Davis could not fire Vance, she was only a co-worker, and since the university had taken corrective action, it was not liable for Davis' actions. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.

But Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, said for the university to be liable, Davis must have had the authority to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline" Vance.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)