Workers who allege retaliation against their employers may now have a tougher battle ahead of them thanks to a ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The highly contested case known as University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar has been making headlines for about three years now, and the ruling by the nation’s highest court is likely to resonate in lower courts across the country.
Dr. Naiel Nassar was employed by the university in 2001 to work at its Parkland HIV-AIDS clinic. His employment went smoothly until 2004 when Dr. Beth Levine became chief of infectious disease medicine. In Nassar’s original complaint, he alleged that Dr. Levine constantly harassed him because of his Middle Eastern descent. The workplace became so unbearable for him that Nassar resigned in 2006, sending a resignation letter that detailed the harassment to Levine’s supervisor and other high level college administrators. At the time, Nassar was anticipating transferring to work at the medical center. The offer of employment was abruptly rescinded after the letter was sent. Nassar sued, believing the loss of the employment offer was solely based upon retaliation for the letter.
Initially, Nassar won his case. The university was ordered to pay nearly $4 million in damages, but they appealed the ruling instead. The case was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the university prevailed by a narrow margin. In a five to four decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that Nassar is required to furnish “proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action … of the employer.” This application of “but for” causation demands a strict interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At this point, the case has been kicked back to the Fifth Circuit Court where this higher standard will be applied. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this litigation, it seems clear that the Supreme Court ruling alone will set a precedent that will require future plaintiffs alleging retaliation against their employers to meet a higher, more exacting standard of proof.