In less than one week, the Supreme Court has issued four decisions immunizing corporate defendants from liability for their wrongdoings and closing the courthouse door to individuals seeking redress. The Court handed victories to the pro-corporate U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has an unprecedented success rate before the Roberts Court and which filed amicus briefs in all of the cases.
As The Wall Street Journal reported before the Court issued three pro-corporate decisions on June 24:
While business litigants often found themselves on the winning side of cases under the tenure of former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, they have made advances since Chief Justice John Roberts took the helm in 2005.
On June 20, the Court ruled in American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant that class action waiver provisions would be enforced even if doing so would make it impossible for small businesses to protect their rights under federal law. In spite of the fact that the decision could have a serious impact on individuals' ability to hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing, media coverage was scant.
On June 24, the Supreme Court handed down three more decisions that roll back individual rights to redress for corporate wrongdoing.
In an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito in Vance v. Ball State University the Court gave made it more difficult for an employee to hold an employer liable for workplace harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Justice Alito explained:
Under Title VII, an employer's liability for such harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim's co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. In cases in which the harasser is a "super- visor," however, different rules apply.
The majority opinion in Vance defined "supervisor" narrowly, leaving Vance, an African-American woman who sued her employer for creating a racially hostile work environment, without redress.
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote:
Exhibiting remarkable resistance to the thrust of our prior decisions, workplace realities, and the EEOC's Guidance, the Court embraces a position that relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ.
The Court struck another blow to enforcing civil rights laws with its decision in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court limited employees' ability to prevail in cases alleging retaliation under Title VII.
In her dissenting opinion in Nassar, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew attention to the Court's results-oriented decision-making in favor of employers:
In this endeavor, the Court is guided neither by precedent, nor by the aimsof legislators who formulated and amended Title VII. In-deed, the Court appears driven by a zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims filed against employers.
Justice Ginsburg also delivered a statement about Vance and Nassar from the bench:
Both decisions dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended. . . . Today, the ball again lies in Congress' court to correct this Court's wayward interpretations of Title VII.
Finally, the Court ruled against a woman who was severely injured by a generic drug and sued the manufacturer. In Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, the Court ruled that federal law related to pharmaceuticals preempts a plaintiff's right to sue the drug company under state law. The plaintiff, Karen Bartlett, had suffered severe injuries after she took a generic pain drug.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) noted one week before the Court handed down its decision in Am Ex:
Data on the Supreme Court in recent years shows a heavy pro-corporate tilt.
Follow this pro-business trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you'll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce.
These decisions continue the Roberts Court's track record of pro-corporate decisions. The question is, will the media cover this trend or allow the decisions to go unnoticed?