The Supreme Court released three race/discrimination decisions today. The most prominent, Fisher v. University of Texas, also turned out to be the least meaningful -- the Court just remanded to the 5th Circuit to properly apply the strict scrutiny test. The second, Vance v. Ball State University, narrowed the definition of who is a supervisor for purpose of Title VII harassment claims. Finally, in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nasser, the court tightened the causation requirements for retaliation claims made under Title VII. Some scattered thoughts below:
* Everybody thought Fisher would be a death knell for affirmative action. Instead, we got a very narrow decision that remanded to the 5th Circuit. I'm fine living to fight another day. And Justice Kennedy continues to confound -- he has yet to uphold a race-conscious affirmative action program, but he has also steadfastly refused to write an opinion closing the door to them entirely.
* Justice Scalia has been on the Supreme Court since 1986. Justice Thomas has been on the Supreme Court since 1991. Both have been the Court's highest profile exponents of constitutional "originalism," and both have also been the Court's primary cheerleaders for a "colorblind" constitution. Yet in all their years on the Court, these two good ships have yet to cross paths. Both Justices wrote concurrences in Fisher (Thomas' was more substantive), and that streak remains intact: Neither Justice has yet attempted to render an originalist justification of constitutional colorblindness.
* Part of Nasser's justification for the heightened causation requirement is the Court's worry about frivilous lawsuits, which the Court wants to see dismissed at summary judgment (pp. 18-19). This is infuriating on several levels. First, I'm not convinced there is any higher risk of frivilous filings in the retaliation context as in anywhere else. As I've argued earlier, there are good reasons to believe that persons do not bring discrimination cases unless they have a strong suspicion that they have been unjustly terminated. Second, there is a fair amount of evidence that people (judges included) are in fact too prone to dismiss discrimination claims as unwarranted because it interferes with their desire to view the world as just. This risk is amplified when there are other factors which could (but do not necessarily) explain the adverse decision (see the work of Katie Eyers on this).
Third, the problem of frivilous lawsuits shouldn't really be affected by this decision because the type of evidence which could support a jury verdict that an unlawful motive contributed to an adverse employment decision is no different than that which could support a verdict that it was the but-for cause of the decision. Once evidence is presented that retaliation was "on the mind" of the decision-maker, it is seemingly for the factfinder to decide how much of a role that factor played vis-a-vis other potential justifications for the adverse action. Nor will plaintiffs be able to self-regulate, because informational asymmetries prevent them from knowing their claim is precluded by a but-for cause defense. A plaintiff has only a limited ability to divine what is truly on the mind of her employer or detailed personnel records providing a basis for comparison. What an employee knows, generally, is (1) the fact of a discrimination complaint, (2) the response of the employer (presumably negative), and (3) the fact of the adverse action. In other words, she can know with some degree of certitude that her initial complaint was on the mind of the decision-maker when the alleged retaliatory decision was made, but has little knowledge of whether it was a but-for cause. Hence, we're likely to see more cases filed that end up being nowhere near the legal dividing line between good and bad cases, not because of plaintiff bad faith, but because of asymmetrical knowledge.