The US Supreme Court on Thursday gave US workers more power in employment discrimination lawsuits, making it easier for employees to fight back if punished by employers for lodging job-bias complaints.
The ruling involved a railway worker who was given less attractive duties and suspended without pay after complaining of sexual harassment and discrimination. The justices unanimously upheld a $43,000 jury award she received.
The decision set out new standards for what kind of action, and the severity of that action, qualifies as retaliation under federal civil rights law. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for eight of the nine justices, said employer actions qualified as retaliation if they “could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination” – a more worker-friendly standard than previously applied in most federal courts.
Employers will have to treat workers that sue them with “kid gloves” after Thursday’s ruling, said Steve Bokat of the National Chamber Litigation Center, the legal arm of the US Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby group.
The ruling also expanded the definition of what types of action constituted retaliation, adding to firings and demotions actions taken outside the workplace.
The ruling could lead to an increase in retaliation complaints and put new burdens on employers, legal experts said. “Anytime you have an employee that has filed a discrimination charge, you have to be exceedingly careful about how you treat that employee, even to the point of treating them better than an employee who hasn’t filed any charge at all,” said Mr Bokat.
But Mimi Moore, an employment law expert at the law firm Bryan Cave, said the ruling might not be such bad news for employers: “Employers now know that there is an objective standard that has to be met for someone to succeed in a retaliation claim,” she said, noting that workers could not now claim that “trivial” actions constituted retaliation.
■ In a separate business case, the court on Thursday decided to dodge a controversial patent dispute by backing out of a case that posed a fundamental question: what exactly can receive the protection of US patent law?
The case, which involved a process used in medical diagnostics, had been expected to reveal the court’s views on the legitimacy of patents on methods of doing things, including controversial “business method patents”.
“Patent holders are breathing a sigh of relief with today’s dismissal,” patent attorney Dennis Crouch wrote on his authoritative blog, Patently-O. “That case had the potential of dramatically altering the landscape of patentable subject matter.”
But Stephen Maebius, a patent expert at the law firm Foley & Lardner, predicted the issue would be back before the court.
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