Employment-Supreme Court Rules That Retaliation Claims Under Title VII Must Be Proved By A But-For Reason

The case of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, No. 12-484 (S.Ct. 2013), may be summarized as follows. The defendant, a university medical center (“University”) that is part of the University of Texas system, specializes in medical education. It has an affiliation agreement with Parkland Memorial Hospital (“Hospital”), which requires the Hospital to offer vacant staff physician posts to University faculty members. Plaintiff Nassan, a physician of Middle Eastern descent who was both a University faculty member and a Hospital staff physician, claimed that Dr. Levine, one of his supervisors at the University, was biased against him on account of his religion and ethnic heritage. He complained to Dr. Fitz, Levine’s supervisor. But after he arranged to continue working at the Hospital without also being on the University’s faculty, he resigned his teaching post and sent a letter to Fitz and others, stating that he was leaving because of Levine’s harassment. Fitz, upset at Levine’s public humiliation and wanting public exoneration for her, objected to the Hospital’s job offer to Nassan , which was then withdrawn.

Nassan then filed suit, alleging two discrete Title VII violations. First, he alleged that Levine’s racially and religiously motivated harassment had resulted in his constructive discharge from the University, in violation of 42 U. S. C. §2000e-2(a). That section prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, and national origin (commonly referred to here as “status-based discrimination”). Second, he claimed that Fitz’s efforts to prevent the Hospital from hiring him were in retaliation for complaining about Levine’s harassment, in violation of 42 U. S. C. §2000e-3(a). That section prohibits employer retaliation because an employee has opposed an unlawful employment practice or made a Title VII charge. The jury at the district court found for University on both claims. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated as to the constructive-discharge claim, but affirmed as to the retaliation finding, on the theory that retaliation claims brought under §2000e-3(a)–like §2000e-2(a) status-based discrimination claims–require onlya showing that retaliation was a motivating factor for the adverse employment action, not its but-for cause. Further, it found that the evidence supported a finding that Fitz was motivated, at least in part, to retaliate against respondent for his complaints about Levine. Thus, the Fifth Circuit upheld the jury decision on the retaliation claim.

In reviewing Nassan’s retaliation claim, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation, not the lessened motivation factor test. As such, the Supreme Court vacated the Fifth Circuit’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.