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Supreme Court rulings limit workers' rights

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings this week that have the potential to limit the rights of workers here in Pennsylvania. The two controversial decisions will make it much more difficult for people to hold their employers responsible for discrimination and retaliation.

Both cases were close calls, with each being decided by a 5-4 majority. The dissenting Supreme Court justices were so disappointed in the rulings and the effects they will have on the workforce that they have actually called for Congress to intervene.

The first ruling limited the definition of "supervisor" as it pertains to discrimination and sexual harassment cases, which has narrowed the liability of employers. The court ruled that someone can only be called a supervisor in an employment law complaint if that person had the authority to hire and fire workers. This means that employers might not always be able to be held responsible for people who are in supervisory-type roles who discriminate against workers.

It is important to note that employers can still be held liable if they do not intervene after becoming aware that a worker is harassing a fellow worker.

The second ruling makes it more difficult for workers to prove that they have been retaliated against for something such as complaining about workplace discrimination. In that case, the court ruled that plaintiffs have to prove that retaliation was the sole reason for a negative employment action--like a firing or a demotion--rather than one contributing factor among others.

Retaliation cases may become much more difficult to prove under this tougher standard, known as but-for causation.

While these rulings may make some employment law claims more difficult to prove, Pennsylvania residents should not become too discouraged. If you have been discriminated against or harassed, it is wise to seek legal counsel to learn whether it is possible to seek legal recourse.

Source: New York Times, "Supreme Court Raises Bar to Prove Job Discrimination," Steven Greenhouse, June 24, 2013

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