24 June 2013

Law in Plain English: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

Nassar, is a physician who was employed by the University of Texas's Southwestern Medical Center. He complained about racial and religious discrimination, and arranged to become an employee of the Medical Center itself rather than the University (as a means of switching to a different supervisor). He then claimed that the University blocked his switch in retaliation. On the other hand, the University argued that because its agreement with the Medical Center required that all physicians be members of the University faculty, the retaliation could not be the so-called “but for” cause of his loss of the position. A jury found for Nassar, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The question before the Court was a matter of the standard of proof to apply to retaliation claims--whether the retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and similarly worded statutes require a plaintiff to prove but-for causation (i.e., that an employer would not have taken an adverse employment action but for an improper motive), or instead require only proof that the employer had a mixed motive (i.e., that an improper motive was one of multiple reasons for the employment action). In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation, not the lessened causation test stated in §2000e–2(m). As a result, Nassar is required to meet a tougher standard to prove his claim. The practical impact of this decision is that employees will have a more difficult time proving retaliation because their claims will need to meet a higher standard.
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