USA Today reports that “a sharply divided Supreme Court sided with corporations against individuals in three cases last week,” which, taken together, “amplified the pro-business tilt of the court’s conservative majority.” All three cases, including two involving workplace discrimination that “prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to call on Congress to intervene” and one that reversed a $21 million state court award to a woman horribly disfigured by the effects of a generic drug, “were decided 5-4, with the five justices nominated by Republican presidents in the majority and the four nominated by Democratic presidents in the minority.” Liberal advocacy groups pointed to an “already-documented corporate tilt” under Chief Justice John Roberts that has “rewarded the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with a 13-3 record during the term ending this week.”
The Washington Post says that “a familiar scenario at the Supreme Court on Monday resulted in a familiar result,” with Ginsburg “calling for Congress to reverse two employment rulings just issued by the court’s conservative majority,” which “make it harder for employees to challenge what they considered workplace harassment and retaliation for complaints of discrimination.” The Post notes that Ginsburg made a similar call two action six years ago “in response to the court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Lilly Ledbetter, a tire plant supervisor who the court said waited too long to file her complaint about being paid less then male co-workers,” after which “a bill changing the rules about such suits was the first major legislation signed by President Obama.”
Supreme Court toughens standards for proving discrimination, retaliation. Providing specifics of the Court’s rulings in the cases of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar and Vance v. Ball State University, both decided in 5-4 rulings, the AP says that the Court “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 also “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.”
In the Ball State case, USA Today says that the ruling “is a victory for Ball State University in Indiana, which had been sued by an African-American kitchen worker who claimed she was harassed by co-workers.” According to USA Today, “the issue before court was important, with the potential to set a broad precedent: What constitutes a ‘supervisor’ when it comes to allegations of employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?”
In the Nassar case, the Christian Science Monitor explains, the issue was “whether the lower courts applied the correct standard for proving a case of illegal retaliation,” when the lower court sided with Naiel Nassar who alleged his previous employer retaliated against him by contacting his new employer, who withdrew their job offer, after he claimed he was resigning due to harassment. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the Medical Center’s argument of a tougher standard requiring Nassar “to show that he lost his job at the Medical Center because of his supervisor’s illegal retaliation,” whereas the lower courts applied a broader standard only requiring Nassar to “prove that retaliation was a motivating factor [among other factors] for the adverse employment action.”
In response to the Court’s rulings, the Wall Street Journal reports, David Lopez, general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said that the agency is “disappointed by the Supreme Court’s failure to defer to long-standing EEOC interpretations of the law.” He added that the rulings “will have serious consequences for workers to be free from workplace harassment and to complain about discrimination without fear of retaliation.”
Federal law preempts state law over generic drug makers, Supreme Court rules. In another 5-4 ruling on Monday, the Reuters reports, the Supreme Court agreed with Mutual Pharmaceutical that generic drug manufacturers cannot be sued under state law for adverse reactions to their products. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that state laws could not run against Federal laws regarding prescription medicines that had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The consumer watchdog group Public Citizen cautioned that the ruling threatens patient safety at a time when nearly 80 percent of prescriptions in the US are filled with generic medicines.
In his opinion, USA Today reports, Alito acknowledged that plaintiff Karen Barlett’s injury “is tragic and evokes deep sympathy, but a straightforward application of pre-emption law requires that the judgment below be reversed.” Because the FDA “approved the brand-name drug for sale – and because the generic is identical, right down to the warning label – the company challenging the jury award” of $21 million “argued that it had no liability for Bartlett’s injuries.” USA Today notes that “all four liberal justices on the court dissented from the ruling.”
Bloomberg News recalls that “a federal appeals court had said it wasn’t impossible for Mutual to comply with both state and federal law,” because Mutual “certainly can choose not to make the drug at all.”
The Wall Street Journal adds that the Supreme Court rejected the appeals court’s reasoning, saying the company was “not required to cease acting altogether in order to avoid liability.”
From the American Association for Justice news release.