HR Management & Compliance

Title VII Standard for Retaliation Claims Gets Scaled Back by Supreme Court

Noting that the increasing number of employee retaliation claims in employment discrimination cases calls for the proper interpretation and implementation of statutory language, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 issued a 5-4 ruling that will likely make it easier for employers to fend off such claims.

In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, No. 12-484 (S. Ct. June 24, 2013), the Court held that retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act must be proven based upon a stricter standard than what had been espoused by Nassar and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While most of the Court’s reasoning was based on an interpretation of statutory intent and drafting, it noted the practical results of its opinion: the number of retaliation claims filed with the EEOC has nearly doubled over the last 15 years, and has now outstripped those for every type of status-based discrimination except race. To that end, adopting a looser standard of proof could “contribute to the filing of frivolous claims, which would siphon resources from efforts by employers, administrative agencies, and courts to combat workplace harassment.” As such, establishing the correct standard has “central importance to the fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems.”

General Background

The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, addressed two types of workplace conduct prohibited by Title VII:

  1. Status-based discrimination. This involves prohibitions against employer discrimination based on factors such as race, color, religion sex or national origin, in hiring, firing, salary structure and promotion. Most key, it is found in Section 2000e-2(a) of the law.
  2. Employer retaliation is based on an employee opposing, complaining of, or seeking remedies for, unlawful workplace discrimination. Also key, this language is found in Section 2000e-3(a) of the law.

The standard used to prove status-based discrimination is called a motivating factor standard, rather than a but-for standard. Here are the differences: In the but-for standard, a plaintiff must prove that the causal link between injury and wrong is so close that the injury would not have occurred but for the status-based discrimination. However in the motivating factor test, a plaintiff only has to show that the motive to discriminate was one of the employer’s motives, even if the employer also had other, lawful motives that were causative in its decision.

Kennedy described congressional history, case law and related federal discrimination laws in determining that the but-for, rather than the motivating factor, standard applied to retaliation claims, particularly because status-based discrimination is distinct from retaliation in the statute. He also rejected language in an EEOC manual supporting the looser standard, finding that the EEOC’s lack of specificity in explaining its view called “ the manual’s conclusions into serious question.”

Although the Court rejected the EEOC’s interpretation, it seemingly wanted to do the agency a favor in tightening the causation standard. The Court noted that retaliation claims are being made “with ever-increasing frequency.” For example, claims filed with the EEOC have nearly doubled in the past 15 years — from just more than 16,000 in 1997 to more than 31,000 in 2012. Currently, such claims outstrip those for every type of status-based discrimination except race, Kennedy noted.

Kennedy added that using a looser standard (like motivating factor), could contribute to the filing of frivolous claims, which would siphon resources from efforts by employers, administrative agencies and courts to combat workplace harassment.

For a related Supreme Court ruling on Title VII that rejected EEOC guidance when defining the term “supervisor,” go here.

More details on this case can be found in


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *