The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Texas case on retaliation by an employer.
The case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, deals with whether an employee plaintiff must show that retaliation was the only factor in an adverse action by the employer, or that it was simply one among a number of possible factors.
Naiel Nassar, the original plaintiff in the case, was an assistant professor at the medical school of the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center. Nassar sought a transfer from the medical school to the hospital, because he believed he was treated differently by his supervisor at the medical school due to his Middle Eastern heritage.
Nassar was informed that such a transfer would constitute a violation of the operating agreement between the medical school and the hospital. However, Nassar worked through other channels to obtain the position he wanted and got an offer from the hospital. Thinking he had gained the hospital position, Nassar resigned from the medical school and accused his supervisor of discriminating against him based on his national origin. However, the employment agreement was terminated.
In his lawsuit, Nassar claimed that his employer retaliated against him for his discrimination claim by withdrawing the offer, while the employer said that the offer was withdrawn because it went against the operating agreement between the hospital and the medical school.
The case was tried in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. UTSW requested a jury instruction that would allow the jury to find liability only if retaliation was the sole reason for the withdrawal of the offer. However, the court allowed the jury to find liability as long as retaliation was one of the motives for the actions by the school. The jury found for Nassar and awarded him $3.5 million in damages, later reduced to $735,000.
The jury instruction was at issue on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed on that issue. The school filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted. UTSW argues that there is a question as to whether a decision in a 1989 case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, establishes a rule for statutes such as the retaliation provision of Title VII, which do not specifically allow a claim based on mixed motives, or whether the rule in such cases should be that a plaintiff must prove “but for” causation.
The case will be heard this spring, with a decision expected in June of this year.