U.S. Supreme Court Limits Title VII Retaliation Claims

In a decision issued on June 24, 2013 (Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar), the U.S. Supreme Court significantly limited the scope of Title VII retaliation claims. This decision is regarded as an important victory for employers, because it will limit retaliation claims.

In short, the Court held that Title VII retaliation claims require proof of “but for” causation (i.e., that the desire to retaliate was the “but for” cause of the challenged employment action), rather than permitting the plaintiff employee to proceed when retaliation was one “motivating factor” for the employment action, but the employer also had other, lawful motives for the action (i.e., “mixed motives”).

Following the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, and following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, a plaintiff employee in Title VII discrimination case may rely upon proof that the employer’s motive to discriminate was one of the employer’s motives, even if the employer also had other lawful, legitimate motives for the action it took.

In the Nassar case, the Supreme Court explained that the retaliation provisions in Title VII are found in a different section of Title VII, which was not amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The Court also found that Congress had intended to follow traditional tort law’s “but for” causation standard for retaliation claims under Title VII.

As a result, it almost certainly will be more difficult for plaintiff employees to prevail in Title VII retaliation claims, because the employee will have to prove that the desire or intention to retaliate was the “but for” cause of the challenged employment action. If the employer also had other legitimate, lawful reasons for the employment action, then even if the desire to retaliate against the employee for complaining about discrimination, etc., was an additional motivation, the employer’s decision should not result in liability for unlawful retaliation.

It will be interesting to see how this clarified standard will be applied by trial courts and by the Courts of Appeals over the coming years.