Eradicating unlawful discrimination and retaliation in the workplace is one of core purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Respondent Dr. Naiel Nassar, a former faculty member of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW), alleges that his employer denied him a job in retaliation for a prior resignation letter alleging race discrimination in the workplace. Specifically, Nassar's resignation letter stated that his supervisor made derogatory comments about his Middle Eastern descent. Petitioner UTSW argues that Nassar needs to prove that retaliation was the sole motivating factor for the negative employment action. In contrast, Nassar argues that he need only show that retaliation was a motivating factor, but not necessarily the only one, for the negative employment action. A holding for UTSW may make it more difficult for victims of retaliation under Title VII to sue their employers, whereas a holding for Nassar may increase the costs borne by employers in defending against potentially meritless litigation.
In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 258, 268-69 (1989), a plurality of this Court held that the discrimination provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), requires a plaintiff to prove only that discrimination was "a motivating factor" for an adverse employment action. In contrast, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 179-80 (2009), held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), Pub. L. 90-202, 81 Stat. 602, requires proof that age was "the but-for cause" of an adverse employment action, such that a defendant is not liable if it would have taken the same action for other, non-discriminatory reasons. The courts of appeals have since divided 3-2 on whether Gross or Price Waterhouse establishes the general rule for other federal employment statutes, such as Title VII’s retaliation provision, that do not specifically authorize mixed-motive claims.
The question presented is:
Whether Title VII's retaliation provision 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).
- Deborah Hammonds, Supreme Court to determine the availability of "mixed motive" claim in Title VII case, Employment Law Daily, Jan. 24, 2013.
- Michael P. Maslanka, But-for and mixed-motive causation squaring off in U.S. Supreme Court case Nassar v. UT Southwestern Medical Center, that was tried in Dallas, Texas Lawyer- Work Matters: A Blog on Employ and Labor Law, Jan. 23, 2013.