Significant Supreme Court Employment Rulings
Euben, Donna R., Academe
The U.S. Supreme Court in March answered affirmatively two legal queries percolating among the lower courts: Is retaliation actionable under Title IX of the Education Amendments, which prohibits discrimination in federally assisted education programs and activities? Can employees sue employers under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act for actions or policies that unintentionally fall more harshly (or have a "disparate impact") on employees over the age of forty? While neither case involved faculty, the rulings have implications for higher education.
The Tide IX case was brought by Roderick Jackson, a high school basketball coach who was removed from his position, allegedly in retaliation for complaining about his all-girl team being denied equal funding and access to sports facilities and equipment. In Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, the Court ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that Tide IX encompasses claims by individuals, including educators, who assert that they have been retaliated against because they complained about sex discrimination on behalf of their students. The decision notes that "if Title IX's private right of action does not encompass retaliation claims, the teacher would have no recourse if he were subsequendy fired for speaking out. Without protection from retaliation, individuals who witness discrimination would likely not report it, indifference claims would be shortcircuited, and the underlying discrimination would go unremedied." In so ruling, the Court observed that "teachers and coaches such as Jackson are often in the best position to vindicate the rights of their students because they are better able to identify discrimination and bring it to the attention of administrators." The Court remanded the case to a lower court for further fact-finding consistent with its reasoning.
As the U.S. Department of Education has recognized, professors are "in the best position to prevent harassment and to lessen the harm to students, if, despite their best efforts, harassment occurs." The Jackson decision provides additional protection and encouragement to the professoriate, especially nontenured faculty and academic professionals, in raising and reporting perceived discrimination without jeopardizing their job security.
The Supreme Court also resolved another contentious legal issue, ruling 5 to 3 in Smith v. City of Jackson that actions may be brought to challenge policies that have a disparate impact on older workers. The case involved older police officers who challenged the policy of Jackson, Mississippi, to provide more generous pay raises to officers with fewer than five years of service, many of whom were under the age of forty. …