Debunking Myths of a Pro-Business Supreme Court
There are still two key employment cases pending this term. These two rulings will help determine this Supreme Court's developing legacy as either pro-individual or pro-business in deciding employment cases.
Conventional wisdom says that the current iteration of the United States Supreme Court is pro-business. In support of this position, Adam Liptak penned an article in Sunday’s New York Times, arguing that the Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts is the most business-friendly since World War II. A recent study published in the Minnesota Law Review [pdf] by Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, University of Chicago economist William Landes, and University of Southern California law professor Lee Epstein (h/t ABA Journal) makes the same argument, albeit in painstaking law-review detail.
In employment cases, however, the realities of the court’s rulings have often bucked this conventional wisdom. Repeatedly, this Court had sided with the employee in cases deciding substantive individual rights under the various federal anti-discrimination statutes:
- Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville — Retaliation for participating in internal discrimination or harassment investigations
- Staub v. Proctor Hospital — The cat’s paw: holding employers liable for the discriminatory animus of non-decision-makers
- Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. — Protecting oral wage and hour complaints under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision
- Thompson v. North American Stainless — Protecting oral wage and hour complaints under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision
- Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School — Allowing non-ministerial employees to sue religious organizations for discrimination
Liptak recognizes, “Employees suing over retaliation for raising discrimination claims have fared quite well, for example.” Yet, much of the rest of his nearly 3,000-word opus takes the Court to task for its pro-business leanings.
The most insightful comment in the entire Times article is courtesy of Case Western Reserve School of Law Professor Jonathan Adler, who notes that the distinction is not one between business and the individual, but instead between enforcing established rights versus creating new ones. Per Professor Adler, the Roberts Court has not been “particularly welcoming to efforts by plaintiffs’ lawyers to open new avenues of litigation, but it has not done much to cut back on those avenues already established by prior cases.”
Professor Adler is correct. Those who take too great of a license to brand this Court as pro-business are ignoring the Court’s protections of key individual liberties in employment decisions. In procedural matters, this Court has, time and again, sided with the employer (Genesis Healthcare: offers of judgment mooting wage and hour collective actions; Comcast v. Behrend: the scope of class actions for claims seeking individualized damages; AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion: the enforceability of arbitration agreements). These are procedural cases. In cases deciding the application of already established rights, such as the right to be free from retaliation by one’s employer, the Court, over and over, sides with the employee.
There are still two key employment cases pending this term—Vance v. Ball St. Univ., which will decide the meaning of “supervisor” under Title VII, and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, which will decide the proper causation standard for retaliation claims under Title VII. These two rulings will help determine this Court’s developing legacy as either pro-individual or pro-business in deciding employment cases.