Retaliation claims under Title VII are one of the most frequently filed types of claims at the EEOC (31,000 in 2012), second only to claims of racial discrimination. A new ruling by the Supreme Court will likely curb these numbers sharply. The decision in University of Texas Medical Center v. Nassar, one of two employer-friendly opinions issued on the same day, is bad news for employees who feel they have been retaliated against for exercising their Title VII rights.
Title VII provides, “it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment . . . because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). An unlawful employment practice is “established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m).
The plaintiff in the Nassar case was Dr. Naiel Nassar, a medical doctor of Middle Eastern descent. He alleged that his superior, Dr. Beth Levine, discriminated against him on the basis of his religion and ethnic heritage. After Nassar reported the behavior, his employer (University of Texas) withdrew a job offer it had made some time earlier. Nassar sued UT for harassment and retaliation, arguing that UT retaliated against his report of workplace discrimination by denying him a job it had previously offered him. Nassar’s case hinged on the reason behind UT’s decision to pull the plug on his job offer; he argued that an employer can be held liable for “retaliation” as long as retaliating was one of several motivating factors (the “motivating factor standard”) for an employer’s adverse employment action (here, the revocation of a job offer). UT argued that the standard for employer liability is higher (the “but-for standard,” meaning the plaintiff must show that the adverse employment action would not have occurred but-for the defendant’s conduct, i.e. the job offer would have never been revoked if Nassar had never reported Dr. Levine to UT for discrimination).
The Supreme Court agreed with UT. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Kennedy, the Court required the employee-claimant to show that his protected activity (reporting a Title VII discrimination issue; see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a)) was the “but-for cause” of the adverse employment action (termination, not getting hired, demotion, pay decrease, etc.) taken against him. The Court made this determination after comparing and contrasted the relevant portions of Title VII to similar pieces of legislation, interpreting statute language and construction, inferring Congress’s intent, and stating the need to prevent frivolous and burdensome lawsuits in our legal system. Prior to this, some lower courts had been on Nassar’s side, holding that an employer who made an adverse employment action could be held liable for retaliation even if there were other “valid” reasons for taking that action; now, the employee bears a bigger burden, and must show that the adverse employment action was taken for the primary purpose of retaliation.
What does Nassar mean for employees?
Unfortunately, this ruling has limited the scope of employees’ Title VII rights and makes it harder for victims of retaliation to sue by providing an easy defense for employers. An employer can escape liability simply by showing that other reasons existed for the adverse employment action and that such action would have been taken regardless of any Title VII discrimination complaints made by the employee. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg laments that the Court’s decision has “undermined” the purpose of Title VII retaliation claims by encouraging employees to remain silent when they are victims of or witnesses to acts of discrimination in the workplace. We will have to wait and see if Congress revises Title VII or chooses to accept the majority’s interpretation.