Last week the U.S. Supreme Court kicked off its 2010-2011 term.   There are at least three cases this term of interest to employment lawyers. The Delaware Employment Law Blog had three excellent postings (here, here, and here) analyzing the cases in some detail. All three cases address important questions concerning the scope of an employer’s liability under the anti-discrimination laws. 

The first case is from the Seventh Circuit, Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.  Kasten addresses whether an employee’s verbal complaints to his superiors about issues with a time clock is protected activity under the Fair Labor Standards Act, so as to protect the employee from retaliation.  The Circuit Court held that verbal complaints were not enough to protect an employee from retaliation; they had to be written.

The second case, Staub v. Proctor Hospital,(also from the Seventh Circuit) will decide the viability of the so-called “cat’s paw” theory of liability.  “Cat’s paw” applies when there is no evidence the decision maker had discriminatory motives, but others in the organization did. The issue involves the extent to which those with discriminatory motives influenced the decision maker. 

The third case is Thompson v. North American Stainless, from the Sixth Circuit.  The issue in Thompson involves so called "associational retaliation".  That is, to what extent is an employee is protected from retaliation not because of his own protected activity, but the protected activity of others. Specifically, the case involved an engaged couple who worked for the same employer.  The male employee claimed he was fired because his fiancee filed an EEOC charge alleging she was discriminated against.   The Sixth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer, holding that the male employee was not protected because his fiancee filed a charge of discrimination.

The opinions will most likely be issued in 2011.