Title VII retaliation claims subject to “but-for” standard of proof says U.S. Supreme Court

University of Tex. Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, No 12-484 (June 24, 2013)

In another 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation. This is opposed to the motivating factor test applicable to status-based discrimination, such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Nassar is a medical doctor of Middle Eastern descent who was also an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (“UTSW”).  Nassar alleged the Chief of the Infectious Disease division, Levine, was biased against him for his religion and heritage. Nassar attempted to obtain employment with the Parkland Hospital, which was the training location for UTSW’s students. The Hospital offered Nassar a position, but upon protest by director (Levine’s supervisor Fistz), it withdrew the offer since it could have been in violation of their operating agreement with UTSW. Nassar filed an EEOC complaint alleging racial and religious harassment after he felt he was constructively discharged, under the impression he would be working for Parkland. Nassar also alleged the opposition to his hospital employment was in retaliation for his complaints about Levine. The jury found for Nassar. The Fifth Circuit vacated in part noting no evidence of constructive discharge was present, but affirmed the retaliation award. UTSW appealed.

The Supreme Court held that the motivating factor test is dictated by the statutory language of Title VII’s status base prohibitions which was amended in 1991 to remove the “because of” language and inject the motivating factor language. The retaliation prohibition, however, retains the “because of” language. Just as with the ADEA, which also retains the “because of” language, the proper standard is a but-for causation test. “Text may not be divorced from context. In light of Congress’ special care in drawing so precise a statutory scheme, it would be improper to indulge respondent’s suggestion that Congress meant to incorporate the default rules that apply only when Congress writes a broad and differentiated statute.” The Court also noted that the views of the EEOC in their guidance manuals which incorporate a motivating factor framework are also wrong and entitled to no Skidmore deference by the Court.

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