Supreme Court declares a Title VII plaintiff must prove that retaliation was the but-for cause

The Supreme Court has recently decided the case of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. This case is a landmark ruling for employers now making it harder for employees to prevail on meritless retaliation claims brought under Title VII.

Nassar is doctor of Middle Eastern descent, specializing in internal medicine and infectious disease. In 1995, he was hired to work at the University as both a member of faculty and as a staff physician in the hospital. He left in 1998 for additional medical training but later returned in 2001. In 2004, Dr. Beth Levine was hired as Nassar’s ultimate superior. Nassar believed that Levine was biased against him based on his religion and ethnicity.

Nassar made several complaints about Levine and later resigned in 2006, stating that his resignation was due to harassment by Levine. Nassar sued his former employer claiming both discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. During the trial level the jury found in his favor. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal vacated the award on the discrimination claim and affirmed the jury’s finding on the retaliation claim. An appeal then ensued to the Supreme Court.

In the opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, the court held that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation, not the lessened causation standard requiring only that retaliation be a motivating factor. In other words, a plaintiff bringing a Title VII retaliation claim must now prove that his/her employer took the adverse action against him/her because the employee engaged in statutorily protected activity. It is not enough to show that retaliation was a motivating factor – it must be the but-for cause.

This ruling is very significant for employers and especially those defending retaliation claims. It will now be easier for the courts to dismiss frivolous cases and for employers to defend them. Given that retaliation claims have doubled in the past 15 years, as noted by the court, this ruling should reduce those retaliation claims that lack any merit.