The Supreme Court Holds That Title VII Retaliation Claims Require Proof of "But-For" Causation
August 4, 2013
The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a 5-4 decision that sets the standard for how retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Title VII") will be analyzed. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Court held that a plaintiff alleging a retaliation claim under Title VII must establish that retaliation for his or her protected activity was the "but-for" cause of the adverse employment action taken by the employer, rather than just "a motivating factor" for the adverse employment action. This holding will likely make it more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail in Title VII retaliation claims and may even reduce the number of frivolous Title VII retaliation lawsuits.
The plaintiff in the Nassar case was a former faculty member of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (the "University") and a staff physician at a University-affiliated hospital, Parkland Memorial Hospital (the "Hospital"). During his employment with the University, the plaintiff made complaints to the University's Chair of Internal Medicine that his supervisor (the Chief of Infectious Disease Medicine) was biased against him due to his religion and Middle Eastern national origin. Although his supervisor assisted him in obtaining a promotion in 2006, the plaintiff continued to believe that she was biased against him. The plaintiff resigned from his faculty member position with the University in July 2006, with the hope of continuing his employment as a staff physician at the Hospital. Upon resigning from his position with the University, the plaintiff wrote a letter to the Chair of Internal Medicine and other individuals at the University alleging that he was resigning because his supervisor had harassed him due to his race, religion, and national origin.
Although the Hospital had initially offered the plaintiff the opportunity to continue his employment as a staff physician despite his resignation from the University, the University's Chair of Internal Medicine protested to the Hospital (after receiving the plaintiff's resignation letter) that the job offer was inconsistent with the affiliation agreement between the University and the Hospital, which required that Hospital staff physicians also be members of the University faculty. The Hospital then withdrew its offer.
The plaintiff filed discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII against the University. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on both claims. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the jury's verdict in favor of the plaintiff on his discrimination claim, holding that the plaintiff had submitted insufficient evidence in support of that claim. However, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the jury's verdict on the plaintiff's retaliation claim, holding that such a claim required only a showing that retaliation was "a motivating factor" for the adverse employment action.
In reviewing and vacating the Fifth Circuit's decision on the plaintiff's retaliation claim, the Supreme Court examined the language of the retaliation provisions of Title VII, and concluded that the statute requires proof that retaliation is the "but-for" cause of the adverse employment action, rather than simply "a motivating factor" for the adverse employment action. The Court noted that Title VII's status-based discrimination provision was expressly amended in 1991 to provide that "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin" need only be "a motivating factor" for an employment practice in order to establish that the employment practice is unlawful, but Title VII's retaliation provision was not similarly amended. Title VII's retaliation provision provides that:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees . . . because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice . . ., or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing . . . .
The Court found that the word "because" means that a plaintiff must establish that retaliation is the "but-for" cause of the adverse employment action. The Court relied on its decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., in which it interpreted similar language in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") and concluded that a plaintiff asserting an ADEA claim must establish that age is the "but-for" cause of the adverse employment action.
The Court noted in its decision that "claims of retaliation are being made with ever-increasing frequency" and that "the number of retaliation claims filed with the EEOC has now outstripped those for every type of status-based discrimination except race." The Court expressed its reluctance to lessen the causation standard for retaliation claims, stating that this could "contribute to the filing of frivolous claims."
This decision will likely make it easier for employers to defend themselves against Title VII retaliation claims, and may even reduce the number of frivolous retaliation claims filed by employees under Title VII. It remains to be seen, however, whether there will be legislative efforts to amend Title VII in order to lessen the proof of causation necessary to establish a retaliation claim.