Under Title VII, employees who believe they have been discriminated against do not have to prove that the discrimination was the employer's sole motivating reason for the action taken (sometimes called the "but for" factor). In "mixed motive" cases, the employee only needs to show that discrimination was a significant contributing factor toward the adverse decision. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in a 5-4 decision that these mixed motive claims are not available to plaintiffs alleging retaliation under Title VII.

In Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, the plaintiff was a faculty member at the medical school who alleged that his employer interfered with his efforts to obtain subsequent employment in retaliation for his earlier complaints about discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. The hospital offered evidence demonstrating legitimate business reasons for the action taken. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiff could ask a jury to determine liability if retaliation was a contributing factor toward the decision, even if there were other legitimate motivating factors involved.

The Court's majority concluded that the mixed motive theory only applies to the base status discrimination claim and not retaliation. The plaintiff can only prevail if he demonstrates that the adverse action would not have occurred but for a retaliatory intent on the part of the employer. The Supreme Court rejected EEOC administrative interpretations allowing the more relaxed standard.

This case represents an uncharacteristic limitation by the Court of the interpretation of the scope of retaliation claims under Title VII. To this point, the Court had taken an expansive reading of such statutes, giving the benefit of the doubt to employees claiming retaliation. It may provide employers with arguments to apply similar limitations to retaliation provisions in other federal employment laws. Practically, this decision may reduce retaliation claims filed by employees who raise such contentions only when they become aware that they are about to be terminated.