Supreme Court rulings raise bar for medical workplace lawsuits

Hospital and health systems will have an easier time defending themselves against workplace discrimination suits thanks to two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that place the burden on staff to prove retaliation was the basis for unfair employment decisions rather than only a motivating factor.

Legal analysts told American Medical News that the decisions protect physician employers from overly broad and frivolous discrimination suits, but limit possible legal remedies for doctors who face discrimination themselves.

In the first case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court's verdict in favor of an internist who claimed he was denied permanent employment at a medical center for complaining about his supervisor's alleged bias against Arabs and Muslims, according to a management paper from the Neal Gerber Eisenberg's Labor & Employment Practice Group.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the lower court's decision saying that employees can't just show that retaliation was a motivating factor for an employer's action against them, instead they must have "proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer," reported the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Supreme Court also was split 5-4 in the second case, Vance v. Ball State University et al., which involved a catering assistant who claimed she was harassed by a coworker whom she considered her supervisor, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Although the coworker had some authority over her work assignments, the Supreme Court ruled the definition of a supervisor means he or she has to have the ability to hire, fire or demote someone.

Michael L. Foreman, a clinical professor at Pennsylvania State University's Dickinson School of Law, told amednews the two rulings will make it harder for physician employees to fight discrimination and probably will discourage them from raising concerns about discrimination.

"The medical profession is hard to get into, and it's hard to move forward. A lot of people are afraid to challenge in that setting. Now, you have an extremely high legal standard to get over [to prove discrimination]. I think most employees will suffer in silence," Foreman told amednews.

To learn more:
- read the amednews article
- check out the management report (.pdf)
- here's the article from Chronicle of Higher Education