Supreme Court Has Agreed to Clarify Retaliation Rules

By Teresa Anderson


The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, that will clarify what burden of proof a plaintiff must meet to prevail in a retaliation claim. Attorneys in the case have asked the Court to determine whether employees must prove that the retaliation was the sole factor in an adverse employment action or whether it was one of several factors.

Naiel Nassar was an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s medical school. Nassar believed that his supervisor, Beth Levine, treated him differently because of Middle Eastern heritage. Nassar asked to be transferred so that he worked at the hospital not the medical school. He wanted exactly the same job, but a different supervisor.

Nassar was told that such a move would violate the operating agreement between the hospital and the school to transfer employment. However, Nassar had a friend working behind the scenes to obtain a place at the hospital. Soon, Nassar received an unsigned offer letter from the hospital.

Believing that he had procured employment at the hospital, Nassar resigned from the school and accused Levine of discrimination based on national origin. The school then learned of Nassar’s planned employment at the hospital and terminated the agreement. Nassar claimed that his offer was rescinded in retaliation for a claim of discrimination. The school argued that the offer was withdrawn because it violated the operating agreement. Nassar filed a lawsuit claiming that the school retaliated against him.

Defending the case before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, the school asked the court to instruct the jury that they could only find the school liable if retaliation was the only reason for the decision. It would require that the jury find that the school would not have taken the actions it did “in the absence of retaliatory animus.” The court refused the request and instructed the jury that Nassar need only prove that discrimination was one of many motives for the school’s actions.

The jury found the school liable and awarded Nassar $3.5 million in damages. The damages were later reduced to $735,000.

Nassar filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit arguing that the jury should have been given the instruction. The appellate court found disagreement among other circuits as to which burden of proof should prevail. So, the appeals court petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the lower court argued that the question at hand is “exceptionally important.” Allowing liability in cases where retaliation is one of many motives would create a “pro-employee framework” that puts companies at a disadvantage because “mixed motives are easy to allege and difficult to prove,” according to the Fifth Circuit’s appeal. “As in this case, employers could be held liable for even routine decisions that individual supervisors took pursuant to straightforward and nondiscriminatory policies.”

The Court will hear the case this spring and make a ruling before the end of June.

Photo from flickr by dbking


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