On Monday, June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, ruled that to prove a retaliation claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the adverse employment action at issue (termination, discipline, etc.) would not have occurred but for an improper retaliatory motive on the employer’s part. In other words, a plaintiff alleging retaliation will now have to prove that his/her protected activity, e.g., complaining of race, age or gender discrimination, was “the” cause of the alleged retaliation – not simply “a” cause.
This decision is a significant victory for employers. Prior to this decision, courts applied the more lenient “motivating factor” standard to retaliation claims. Under the “motivating factor” standard, a plaintiff only needed to show that retaliatory intent was among the motivating factors behind the adverse action. The high court’s endorsement of the “but for” standard means that a plaintiff must now show that retaliatory intent was the only factor behind the adverse action.
The Nassar decision should put a stop to employees asserting discrimination in anticipation of being fired or disciplined, and then claiming the discipline was in retaliation for complaining of discrimination. It should also lead to fewer frivolous retaliation claims and increase the number of retaliation claims dismissed by summary judgment.