In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338 (2013), the Supreme Court clarified the appropriate standards for proving causation in claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In short, the Court held that to prevail on a retaliation claim under Title VII, an employee must prove retaliation was a “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action at issue. This is arguably a more stringent causation standard than that available in Title VII claims for status-based discrimination, where an employee may prevail by showing her race, sex, religion, or national origin was a “motivating factor” behind the adverse employment action. But-for causation, however, does not require employees to prove retaliation was the sole cause of an adverse employment decision. Just like any event, a termination or other adverse action can (and often does) have multiple but-for causes.
Title VII protects employees and prospective employees from discrimination based on their race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Under Title VII, an employer may not treat employees or job applicants differently based on such factors. 42 U.S.C. §2000e–2(a). In addition to those status-based discrimination protections, Title VII also prohibits employers from retaliating against any employees who oppose employment practices made unlawful by the statute, or who participate in filing complaints or investigations of discrimination. 42 U.S.C. §2000e–3(a).
Nassar highlights the differing standards for proving causation in Title VII retaliation claims and status-based discrimination claims, respectively.
Nassar was a physician of Middle Eastern descent. His employer, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, held an affiliation agreement with a hospital, Parkland Memorial, that required the hospital to offer any vacant staff physician posts to University of Texas faculty members. Nassar held a position as a university faculty member and a hospital staff physician. During his employment, Nassar claimed a Dr. Levine, a supervisor, discriminated against him on account of his religion and ethnic heritage. Nassar brought this complaint to the attention of Dr. Fitz, the supervisor of Levine. After he arranged to continue working at the hospital without remaining on the university faculty, Nassar resigned from his university teaching position and circulated a letter explaining that he was resigning because of Levine’s harassment. Upset by the Levine’s public humiliation, Fitz objected to Nassar’s hospital job offer, and the offer was then withdrawn.
Nassar filed suit, alleging two discrete violations of Title VII. First, Nassar claimed 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), which prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” This was, therefore, a claim of status-based discrimination. Second, Nassar claimed Fitz’s efforts to prevent the hospital from hiring him were in retaliation for his complaints about Levine’s discrimination and harassment, in violation of 42 U.S.C. §2000e-3(a), which prohibits employers from retaliating “because an employee has opposed… an unlawful employment practice… or… made a Title VII charge. The jury found for Nassar on both claims. The Fifth Circuit vacated the constructive discharge claim, but affirmed as to the retaliation claim, on the theory that retaliation claims brought under §2000e–3(a) —like §2000e–2(a) status-based claims— require only a showing that retaliation was a “motivating factor” for the adverse employment action, not its but-for cause. See 42 U.S.C. §2000e–2(m). And the Fifth Circuit found sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Fitz was motivated, at least in part, to retaliate against Nassar for his complaints about Levine.
The Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Title VII retaliation claims require evidence of “but-for” causation, and could not be proved using the “motivating factor” standard of §2000e—2(m).
As the Court explained, an employee alleging status-based discrimination under §2000e–2 need not show “but-for” causation. In those claims, it is sufficient if the employee only shows that the motive to discriminate (because of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin) was one of the employer’s motives in taking an adverse employment action (like a termination or promotion denial), even if the employer also had other, lawful motives for the decision. This principle arose from the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which substituted a new Title VII burden-shifting framework for the one previously endorsed by the Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). The 1991 Act added a new subsection to §2000e–2, providing that “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). Significantly, the text of §2000e—2(m) does not mention the causation standard for retaliation claims.
Rather, Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision appears in a different part of the law from the ban on status-based discrimination. The Court noted that like 29 U.S.C. §623(a)(1), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act provision at issue in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U. S. 167 (2009), §2000e–3(a) (Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision) makes it unlawful for an employer to take adverse employment action against an employee “because” of certain criteria. Finding a “lack of any meaningful textual difference between §2000e–3(a) and §623(a)(1)”, the Court concluded that Title VII retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was a but-for cause of the challenged employment action.
In so holding, the Court rejected Nassar’s arguments that §2000e–2(m)’s motivating-factor test applied to retaliation claims. First, the Court noted that such a reading was inconsistent with the plain language of the motivating-factor section, which discusses only race, color, religion, sex, and national origin discrimination — i.e., status-based claims. The section says nothing about retaliation claims. 570 U.S. at 339, 352-53.
Second, the Court determined Nassar’s reading was inconsistent with the statute’s “design and structure.” 570 U.S. at 339, 353. This was because Congress made the motivating-factor provision a subsection within §2000e–2, which deals only with status-based discrimination. By contrast, another part of the 1991 Act, §109, expressly refers to all unlawful employment actions. The Court reasoned that if Congress had intended the motivating-factor section to apply to retaliation, it would have included similar language — addressing all unlawful employment actions, instead of just status-based actions — in the motivating-factor section. Congress did not do this. The Court, therefore, concluded that Congress deliberately omitted retaliation claims from the motivating-factor provision set out in §2000–2(m).
Third, the Court rejected Nassar’s proposition that Congress’ enactment of a “broadly phrased antidiscrimination statute”, like Title VII, may signal an accompanying intent to also ban retaliation against individuals who oppose that discrimination. 570 U.S. at 339, 354-55. Some cases seemed to support this argument. For example, in CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, 553 U. S. 442 (2008), the Court held that 42 U.S.C. §1981 — which ensures that all persons “shall have the same right … to make and enforce contracts … as is enjoyed by white citizens” — prohibits not only racial discrimination but also retaliation against those who oppose it. Id. at 445, 452–453. Similarly, the Court has interpreted the broad wording of the ADEA’s federal-employee provisions (“All personnel actions affecting [federal] employees … who are at least 40 years of age … shall be made free from any discrimination based on age”) as including a bar on retaliation. Gómez–Pérez v. Potter, 553 U.S. 474, 479, 487 (2008); 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a). But the Court found that these cases did not support the “quite different rule that every reference to race, color, creed, sex, or nationality in an antidiscrimination statute is to be treated as a synonym for retaliation, especially in a precise, complex, and exhaustive statute like Title VII.” 570 U.S. at 339, 355. For example, the Court pointed out that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which contained detailed descriptions of the practices constituting prohibited discrimination, as well as an express, separate anti-retaliation provision, was passed only a year before §2000e–2(m) was passed. The Court found this shows that “when Congress elected to address retaliation as part of a detailed statutory scheme, it did so clearly.” Id. at 339, 357.
The Court also expressed concerns that applying a motivating-factor standard to retaliation claims would stress administrative and judicial resources, by potentially leading to an increase in claims where the employer had acted without retaliatory intent. 570 U.S. at 358-59.
Finally, the Court rejected Nassar’s last-resort argument that retaliation claims should be allowed to proceed under a motivating-factor framework because that approach would be consistent with the views of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as expressed in its guidance manual. The Court determined that the EEOC’s explanations for its views “lack[ed] the persuasive force that is a necessary precondition to deference” under Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944). 570 U.S. at 361.
The Court therefore held that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to the traditional principles of but-for causation, not the more lenient motivating factor standard that § 2000e-2(m) applies to status-based discrimination claims.
It is worth noting that while but-for causation is often viewed as a higher standard of causation than motivating-factor, it does not require employees to prove that retaliation was the sole cause of an adverse employment decision. A termination or other adverse action, just like any event, can (and often does) have multiple but-for causes. For example, a car might run off the road because the driver was speeding, the road was wet, and the tires were bald. If the road were dry, or if the driver had not been speeding, or if the tires had not been bald, the car would have stayed on the road. In that situation, the driver’s speed, the road conditions, and the tires were all but-for causes of the car leaving the road. Similarly, an employer might terminate an employee partly because the employee was not a top performer, and partly in retaliation because the employee had complained about sexual harassment. Under Nassar, the key question in these cases is simply whether the employer would have taken the adverse action in absence of a retaliatory motive. If the answer to that question is “no,” the but-for standard is satisfied.
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