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Legal Briefing: Proof Needed to Demonstrate Unlawful Retaliation

The Supreme Court has increased the causation threshold for Title VII cases, which provides greater protections for potential defendants of such actions and takes away a legal path from potential plaintiffs.

August 21, 2013

In a narrow 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that plaintiffs pursuing retaliation claims under the federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act must show that the alleged adverse employment actions would not have occurred “but for” unlawful retaliatory adverse action by the employer.

Dr. Naiel Nassar, a physician of Middle Eastern descent, worked at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s university faculty where he was supervised by Dr. Beth Levine, who Nassar said harassed him based on his religion and ethnicity. When Nassar was accepted for a staff position at the university’s hospital, he resigned his teaching position with the university and sent a letter describing Levine’s harassment. After Dr. Gregory Fitz, Levine’s supervisor, complained about Nassar’s public comments about Levine, Nassar’s application process was delayed. He then moved to California, and the hospital withdrew its offer.

In response, Nassar sued the university claiming it had denied him employment on the basis of his complaints and that Levine’s conduct had resulted in his discharge. At the U.S. District Court, a jury sided with Nassar and awarded him $3.4 million, which was reduced to $700,000 by the district court. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s retaliation finding. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, which is a writ to review the case. It found in favor of the university and against Nassar, and held that the lower hurdle of “mixed motive” causation in Title VII cases only applies to race, color, religion, sex and national origin cases. Univ. of Tex. SW. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, U.S. N. 12-484 (June 24, 2013).

IMPACT: The Supreme Court has increased the causation threshold for Title VII cases, which provides greater protections for potential defendants of such actions and takes away a legal path from potential plaintiffs.

James E. Hall, Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners in the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has offices in Los Angeles and Chicago. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.