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Supreme Court Limits Employee Retaliation Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that will have a significant impact on retaliation cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Generally, an employee can sue an employer if the employer made a decision about the employee and the motivating factor was based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin under federal anti-discrimination law, even motivating factors were also present. However, the language of the statue does not specify that the same language regarding the decision being only a “motivating factor” applies to cases of retaliation. A charge of retaliation can be brought “because [the employee] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII], or because [the employee] has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [Title VII].” So up until now courts have been split as to whether to interpret the cause of retaliation in the same way the cause of a direct discrimination act.

In the case of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, Nassar, a doctor of Middle Eastern heritage complained that he had experienced harassment due to his race. However, after he made the complaint he alleged that he suffered retaliation from his employer because of his complaints. He filed a retaliation lawsuit and won based on the jury instruction that the complaint he made only needed to be a motivating factor for suffering retaliation. The employer appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found that the law governing Title VII was originally based in the law of personal injury (Tort law). Tort law generally requires that a party prove that if it were not for the act of one party, the damage would not have resulted. As a result the court concluded that the lesser motivating factor requirement was incorrect. The court found that the correct standard is the higher, “but-for”, standard.

This essentially means that an employee must show that retaliation occurred because of an employee’s complaint. If there were other legitimate motivating factors for an employer’s actions after the complaint, the employer can escape liability for retaliation. This ruling will affect a wide variety of retaliation claims, including sex discrimination, race, and potentially even other discrimination law that is based on Title VII.

Employment discrimination law is a complex area that involves both employment and tort law. Having an experienced employment attorney on your side is vital to a successful discrimination lawsuit. The employment lawyers of the Law Offices of Michael S. Cunningham, LLP can help you if you have been wrongfully discriminated against. To schedule a free consultation call (858) 376-7390 today.

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