Labor & Employment Supreme Court Cases

Many of the labor and employment cases that have reached the Supreme Court involve claims of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in the workplace. These may arise under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits adverse employment actions based on the race, color, religion, sex, or national origin of an employee. The Supreme Court also has reviewed cases under parallel anti-discrimination laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Meanwhile, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 imposes rules for pension, health, and other benefit plans in the private sector. The Supreme Court has clarified ERISA terms and requirements, in addition to determining whether ERISA preempts various state laws. The ERISA preemption clause provides that the law supersedes any state laws to the extent that they relate to employee benefit plans. However, the ERISA savings clause allows states to regulate the business of insurance.

Other workplace issues addressed by the Supreme Court include employee privacy, wage and hour rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the free speech rights of government employees. The Court also has discussed the use of arbitration to resolve labor and employment disputes.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving labor and employment, arranged from newest to oldest.

Groff v. DeJoy (2023)

Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business. The impact on coworkers is relevant only to the extent that it goes on to affect the conduct of the business.

Bostock v. Clayton County (2020)

An employer that fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.

Babb v. Wilkie (2020)

The federal-sector provision of the ADEA demands that personnel actions be untainted by any consideration of age.

Janus v. AFSCME (2018)

The state’s extraction of agency fees from non-consenting public-sector employees violates the First Amendment.

Digital Reality Trust, Inc. v. Somers (2018)

Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision does not extend to an individual who has not reported a violation of the securities laws to the SEC.

Heffernan v. City of Paterson (2016)

When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and Section 1983 even if the employer’s actions are based on a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior.

Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. (2016)

ERISA preempts a state law that governs or interferes with the uniformity of plan administration.

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (2015)

To prevail in a disparate treatment claim, an applicant needs to show only that their need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision. They do not need to show that the employer had knowledge of their need.

Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk (2014)

Time spent waiting to undergo and undergoing security screenings is not compensable under the FLSA.

Lane v. Franks (2014)

A public employee’s sworn testimony outside the scope of their ordinary job duties is entitled to First Amendment protection.

Vance v. Ball State University (2013)

An employee is a supervisor for the purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if they are empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.

Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (2013)

Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012)

The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses bar lawsuits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes (2011)

In an employment discrimination class action, the conceptual gap between an individual’s discrimination claim and the existence of a class of persons who have suffered the same injury must be bridged by significant proof that an employer operated under a general policy of discrimination.

Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri (2011)

A government employer’s allegedly retaliatory actions against an employee do not give rise to liability under the Petition Clause of the First Amendment unless the employee’s petition relates to a matter of public concern.

Staub v. Proctor Hospital (2011)

If a supervisor performs an act motivated by discriminatory animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, the employer is liable.

Ontario v. Quon (2010)

A government employer had a right to read text messages sent and received on a pager that the employer owned and issued to an employee.

Ricci v. DeStefano (2009)

Before an employer can engage in intentional discrimination for the asserted purpose of avoiding or remedying an unintentional disparate impact, the employer must have a strong basis in evidence to believe that it will be subject to disparate impact liability if it fails to take the race-conscious, discriminatory action.

Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. (2009)

A plaintiff bringing an ADEA disparate treatment claim must prove that age was the but-for cause of the adverse employment action.

14 Penn Plaza, LLC v. Pyett (2009)

A provision in a collective bargaining agreement that clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate ADEA claims is enforceable as a matter of federal law.

Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (2008)

An employer defending a disparate impact claim under the ADEA bears both the burden of production and the burden of persuasion for the “reasonable factors other than age” (RFOA) affirmative defense.

Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White (2006)

The anti-retaliation provision of Title VII covers only those employer actions that would have been materially adverse to a reasonable employee or applicant. The plaintiff must show that the challenged action well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.

Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006)

When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.

IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez (2005)

When employees must don protective clothing on the employer’s premises before they engage in the productive labor for which they are primarily hired, the time that employees spend walking between the changing area and the production area is compensable under the FLSA. However, the time that employees spend waiting to put on the protective gear is not compensable.

Smith v. City of Jackson (2005)

While the ADEA authorizes recovery in disparate impact cases, ADEA Section 4(f)(1) significantly narrows its coverage by permitting any otherwise prohibited action when the differentiation is based on reasonable factors other than age.

Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila (2004)

If an individual at some point in time could have brought their claim under ERISA Section 502(a)(1)(B), and no other independent legal duty is implicated by a defendant’s actions, the individual’s cause of action is completely preempted.

Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders (2004)

A plaintiff alleging sexual harassment can establish constructive discharge if they can show that the abusive working environment became so intolerable that their resignation qualified as a fitting response. An employer may assert the Faragher affirmative defense unless the plaintiff quit in reasonable response to an adverse action officially changing their employment status or situation.

Desert Palace. Inc. v. Costa (2003)

Direct evidence of discrimination is not required for a plaintiff to obtain a mixed motive jury instruction under Title VII.

Clackamas Gastroenterology Associates, P.C. v. Wells (2003)

The common-law element of control is the principal guidepost to be followed in deciding whether director-shareholder physicians in a medical clinic should be counted as employees for the purposes of the ADA. Factors to be considered in deciding whether a shareholder-director is an employee include whether the organization can hire or fire the individual or set rules for their work, whether the organization supervises their work, whether they report to someone higher in the organization, whether they can influence the organization, whether written agreements or contracts show that the parties intended the individual to be an employee, and whether the individual shares in the profits, losses, and liabilities of the organization.

Rush Prudential HMO, Inc. v. Moran (2002)

HMOs may be insurers and thus subject to state regulation of insurers. State laws directed toward the insurance industry are saved from preemption under ERISA’s saving clause.

EEOC v. Waffle House, Inc. (2002)

An agreement between an employer and an employee to arbitrate employment-related disputes does not bar the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from pursuing victim-specific judicial relief, such as backpay, reinstatement, and damages, in an ADA enforcement action.

Major League Baseball Players’ Ass’n v. Garvey (2001)

Judicial review of a labor arbitration decision pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement is very limited. Courts are not authorized to review an arbitrator’s decision on the merits despite allegations that the decision rests on factual errors or misinterprets the parties’ agreement. Even when the arbitrator’s award may properly be vacated, the appropriate remedy is to remand the case for further arbitration proceedings.

Clark County School District v. Breeden (2001)

A retaliation claim will not withstand a summary judgment motion when nobody could reasonably believe that the incident of which the plaintiff complained violated Title VII.

Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams (2001)

The exemption in Section 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act, which excludes contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce, is confined to transportation workers.

Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. (2000)

A prima facie case of discrimination, combined with sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to reject the employer’s non-discriminatory explanation for its decision, may be adequate to sustain a finding of liability for intentional discrimination under the ADEA.

Pegram v. Herdrich (2000)

Mixed treatment and eligibility decisions by health maintenance organization (HMO) physicians are not fiduciary decisions under ERISA.

Kolstad v. American Dental Ass'n (1999)

An employer’s conduct does not need to be independently egregious to satisfy the requirements for a punitive damages award in a Title VII case. However, in the punitive damages context, an employer may not be vicariously liable for the discriminatory employment decisions of managerial agents when these decisions are contrary to the employer’s good-faith efforts to comply with Title VII.

Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corp. (1998)

For a union to waive employees’ rights to a federal judicial forum for statutory anti-discrimination claims, the agreement to arbitrate these claims must be clear and unmistakable.

Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (1998)

An employer is subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate or successively higher authority over the employee. When no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may raise an affirmative defense if they can show that they exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.

Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth (1998)

Under Title VII, an employee who refuses the unwelcome and threatening sexual advances of a supervisor, yet suffers no adverse, tangible job consequences, may recover damages from the employer without showing that the employer was negligent or otherwise at fault for the supervisor’s actions, but the employer may interpose an affirmative defense. (The defense consists of the elements in Faragher below.)

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. (1998)

Sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII.

Inter-Modal Rail Employees Ass’n v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. (1997)

The power to amend or abolish an employee welfare benefit plan does not include the power to discriminate against the plan’s participants and beneficiaries for the purpose of interfering with their attainment of rights under the plan.

Auer v. Robbins (1997)

The salary-basis test denies exempt status under the Fair Labor Standards Act when employees are covered by a policy that permits disciplinary or other deductions in pay as a practical matter. That standard is met if there is either an actual practice of making such deductions or an employment policy that creates a significant likelihood of such deductions.

Lockheed Corp. v. Spink (1996)

When employers or other plan sponsors adopt, modify, or terminate pension plans, they do not act as fiduciaries but are analogous to settlors of a trust.

O’Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp. (1996)

The fact that one member of a protected class lost out to another member is irrelevant to an employment discrimination claim so long as they lost out because of their protected trait.

New York State Conference of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans v. Travelers Ins. Co. (1995)

A law operating as an indirect source of merely economic influence on administrative decisions should not suffice to trigger ERISA preemption.

McKennon v. Nashville Banner Publishing Co. (1995)

An employee discharged in violation of the ADEA is not barred from all relief when, after their discharge, their employer discovers evidence of wrongdoing that, in any event, would have led to their termination on lawful and legitimate grounds had the employer known of it.

Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. (1993)

Title VII is violated when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory behavior that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a discriminatorily hostile or abusive working environment. This standard requires an objectively hostile or abusive environment, as well as the victim’s subjective perception that the environment is abusive.

Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins (1993)

An employment decision based on years of service is not necessarily age-based, since this factor is analytically distinct from age.

Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co. v. Darden (1992)

The common-law test for determining who qualifies as an employee under ERISA considers the hiring party’s right to control the manner and means by which the product is accomplished. Other factors to consider include the skill required, the source of the instrumentalities and tools, the location of the work, the duration of the relationship between the parties, the extent of the hired party’s discretion over when and how long to work, and the method of payment, among others.

Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp. (1991)

An ADEA claim can be subjected to compulsory arbitration.

FMC Corp. v. Holliday (1990)

ERISA’s deemer clause demonstrates Congress’ clear intent to exclude from the reach of the saving clause self-funded ERISA plans by relieving them from state laws purporting to regulate insurance. State laws directed toward such plans are preempted because they relate to an employee benefit plan but are not saved because they do not regulate insurance.

Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio (1989)

The proper comparison in a disparate impact employment discrimination case is generally between the racial composition of the at-issue jobs and the racial composition of the qualified population in the relevant labor market.

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989)

In the specific context of sex stereotyping, an employer that acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, has acted on the basis of gender.

Massachusetts v. Morash (1989)

A policy of paying discharged employees for their unused vacation time does not constitute an employee welfare benefit plan within the meaning of ERISA, and a criminal action to enforce that policy is not foreclosed.

Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch (1989)

For disclosure purposes, a “participant” in an ERISA plan means an employee in currently covered employment (or reasonably expected to be in currently covered employment), or a former employee who has a reasonable expectation of returning to covered employment or who has a colorable claim to vested benefits. To establish that they may become eligible for benefits, a claimant must have a colorable claim that they will prevail in a suit for benefits, or that eligibility requirements will be fulfilled in the future.

Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust (1988)

Disparate impact analysis in an employment discrimination claim may be applied to subjective employment criteria.

Communications Workers of America v. Beck (1988)

The National Labor Relations Act does not permit a union, over the objections of dues-paying non-member employees, to expend funds collected from them on activities unrelated to collective bargaining activities.

Fort Halifax Packing Co., Inc. v. Coyne (1987)

To be preempted by ERISA, a state statute must have some connection with or reference to a plan.

Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux (1987)

ERISA preempts state common law tort and contract actions asserting improper processing of a claim for benefits under an insured employee benefit plan.

O’Connor v. Ortega (1987)

Both the inception and the scope of the intrusion must be reasonable when a public employer intrudes on the constitutionally protected privacy interests of government employees for non-investigatory, work-related purposes, as well as for investigations of work-related misconduct.

Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986)

A claim of hostile environment sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII.

Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (1983)

A law relates to an employee benefit plan for ERISA purposes if it has a connection with or reference to such a plan.

Connick v. Myers (1983)

When a public employee speaks as an employee on matters only of personal interest, a federal court is generally not the appropriate forum to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to the employee’s behavior.

Connecticut v. Teal (1982)

A non-job-related test that has a disparate impact and is used to limit or classify employees is used to discriminate within the meaning of Title VII, even if it was not designed or intended to have this effect and even if an employer tries to compensate for its discriminatory effect.

Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine (1981)

When a plaintiff in a Title VII case has proved a prima facie case of employment discrimination, the defendant bears only the burden of explaining clearly the non-discriminatory reasons for its actions. It is sufficient if the defendant’s evidence raises a genuine issue of fact as to whether it discriminated against the plaintiff.

Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall (1980)

A regulation could permit private employees of a private employer to avoid workplace conditions that they believe pose grave dangers to their own safety, when the employees have no power under the regulation to order their employer to correct the hazardous condition or to clear the dangerous workplace of others.

Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District (1979)

A public employee does not forfeit their First Amendment protection when they arrange to communicate privately with their employer, rather than expressing their views publicly.

Hazelwood School District v. U.S. (1977)

Once a prima facie case has been established by statistical workforce disparities, the employer must have an opportunity to show that the claimed discriminatory pattern was a product of pre-Title VII hiring, rather than unlawful post-Title VII discrimination.

Dothard v. Rawlinson (1977)

To establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination, a plaintiff need only show that facially neutral standards select applicants for hire in a significantly discriminatory pattern. If the employer proves that the challenged requirements are job-related, the plaintiff may show that other selection devices without a similar discriminatory effect would also serve the employer’s legitimate interest in efficient and trustworthy workmanship.

Teamsters v. U.S. (1977)

In cases alleging a pattern or practice of employment discrimination, the government must show that discrimination was the standard operating procedure of the defendant. Statistics may be used in proving discrimination.

Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co. (1974)

An employee’s statutory right to trial de novo under Title VII is not foreclosed by prior submission of their claim to final arbitration under the non-discrimination clause of a collective bargaining agreement.

McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973)

In a private, non-class action complaint under Title VII charging racial employment discrimination, the complainant has the burden of establishing a prima facie case, which they can satisfy by showing that they belong to a racial minority, they applied and were qualified for a job that the employer was trying to fill, they were rejected, and the employer continued to seek applicants with their qualifications.

Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971)

An employment practice that operates to exclude members of a protected group is prohibited if it cannot be shown to be related to job performance, even if the employer lacked discriminatory intent.

Pickering v. Board of Education (1968)

When a public employee’s false statements concerned issues that were currently the subject of public attention and did not interfere with the performance of their duties or the general operation of their employer, they were entitled to the same protection as if the statements had been made by a member of the general public.

Skidmore v. Swift & Co. (1944)

No principle of law precludes a determination that waiting time is working time under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

J.I. Case Co. v. NLRB (1944)

The fact that an employer has individual contracts of employment with a majority of its employees does not preclude the employees from exercising their right under the National Labor Relations Act to choose a representative for collective bargaining, nor does it warrant refusal by the employer to bargain with this representative regarding terms covered by the individual contracts.

NLRB v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp. (1939)

In recognizing the right to strike, the National Labor Relations Act contemplates a lawful strike. When a strike, even if it arose from unfair labor practices, is initiated and conducted in lawlessness by the seizure and retention of the employer’s property, and the strikers are discharged because of their lawlessness, they do not remain employees under the NLRA.

West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937)

In dealing with the relation of employer and employed, the legislature has a wide field of discretion in order that there may be suitable protection of health and safety, and that peace and good order may be promoted through regulations designed to ensure wholesome conditions of work and freedom from oppression.

Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923)

Legislation fixing hours or conditions of work may properly take into account the physical differences between men and women, but the doctrine that women of mature age require (or may be subjected to) restrictions on their liberty of contract that could not lawfully be imposed on men in similar circumstances must be rejected.

Muller v. Oregon (1908)

The regulation of the working hours of women falls within the police power of the state, and a statute directed exclusively to such regulation does not conflict with the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses.

Adair v. U.S. (1908)

It is not within the power of Congress to make it a criminal offense against the United States for a carrier engaged in interstate commerce to discharge an employee simply because of their membership in a labor organization. A provision to that effect is an invasion of personal liberty and the right of property and is unenforceable under the Due Process Clause.

Hodges v. U.S. (1906)

A U.S. court has no jurisdiction under the Thirteenth Amendment or other federal laws of a charge of conspiracy made and carried out in a state to prevent citizens of African descent, because of their race and color, from making or carrying out contracts and agreements to labor.

Lochner v. New York (1905)

The general right to make a contract in relation to one’s business is part of the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and this includes the right to purchase and sell labor, except as controlled by the state in the legitimate exercise of its police power.