On one day recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued employer-friendly opinions in two separate and long-awaited cases interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (known simply as “Title VII”), the primary federal employment discrimination statute. While both cases change little about what employers should be doing day-to-day to prevent unlawful discrimination in the workplace, both may have profound effects on the ability of employers to successfully defend against Title VII claims. In fact, this was such a big day at the Supreme Court for labor and employment law that we’re going to blog about it twice! Today, we blog about one of those cases, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, in which the Court increased the burden of plaintiff’s asserting retaliation claims under Title VII by requiring that they show their protected conduct was the “but for” cause of the adverse employment action.
Later in the week, we’ll blog about the other case, Vance v. Ball State University, in which the Court narrowed the definition of “supervisor” to only those with actual authority to hire and fire employees, limiting the situations where employers can be liable for the discriminatory acts of lower-level employees.
Nassar Requires “But For” Causation In Title VII Retaliation Cases Based On That Statute’s Structure
Title VII, as any reader of this blog probably knows, is the granddaddy of all federal anti-discrimination statutes. First enacted in 1964, its primary provision, 42 USC § 2000e-2, prohibits employers from taking employment action against employees “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” In 1991, Congress amended Title VII to, among other things, lessen the burden of proof on causation; plaintiffs bringing discrimination claims under Title VII need only show that a discriminatory motive was “a motivating factor…even though other factors also motivated the practice.” 42 USC § 2000e-2(m). In other words, plaintiffs need not show that a discriminatory animus on the part of a manager was the only or even primary motive behind the employment action—if the employee’s race, gender, etc. was considered at all, the company could be liable for discrimination. (Section 2(m) did create affirmative defenses that allow the employer to avoid money damages in these so called “mixed motive” cases if it can show that it would have taken the adverse action anyway regardless of the discriminatory motivation).