Supreme Court Makes Landmark Decision in Workplace Retaliation Case
August 25, 2013
Workplace Retaliation in the U.S.
Many employees are fearful about coming forward with a complaint when they are experience harassment or discrimination in the workplace. The thought of losing workplace privileges, being subjected to worse harassment, or even being fired all cross the minds of employees who are thinking about speaking out against this conduct. However, both California and federal law prohibit an employer from taking such adverse action against an employee for asserting his or her rights against workplace discrimination or harassment.
In fact, the federal law regarding workplace retaliation claims was clarified by the Supreme Court this summer.
Landmark Retaliation Case Considered by Supreme Court
Retaliation claims—that is claims that are brought against employers or organizations for taking adverse action against an employee for asserting his or her rights, including bringing complaints for harassment or discrimination—fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law can be developed by interpretation by the courts, as it was in the most recent decision in June. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School reports that the plaintiff-employee in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar had originally brought a claim for retaliation after his employer denied him a position. He previously wrote a resignation letter that alleged that the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center had discriminated against him on the basis of his Middle Eastern descent.
According to Mondaq.com the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and a landmark decision was reached with Justice Kennedy delivering the opinion.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that when a plaintiff-employee brings a suit for retaliation under Title VII, he or she must prove that the adverse action would not have occurred “but for” the employer having a retaliatory motivation. That is, the employee-plaintiff must prove that in absence of the motive to retaliate, the retaliation would not have occurred. The Court differentiated this standard from discrimination claims, which only require that the employee-plaintiff show that a discriminatory motive was a “motivating factor” in an employment decision.
Implications of Supreme Court’s Decision
What the Supreme Court’s decision means is that it may be more difficult for employee-plaintiffs to prevail on a retaliation claim under the “but-for” analysis.
However, the dissent, in the case argued that the more onerous “but for” burden of proof should motivate Congress to enact legislation updating the Civil Rights Act. The dissent also noted that retaliation and discrimination have always “traveled together” and that the causation standards for both should not be split.
While, at least for now, the “but for” standard may make it more difficult for plaintiff-employees to prevail on a claim for unlawful retaliation, the law still prohibits employers from firing, demoting, harassing or otherwise acting adversely to an employee based on the fact that he or she has filed a charge of discrimination or has otherwise opposed discrimination or harassment.
If you are or have been a victim of harassment or retaliation, you should immediately seek the assistance of an experienced employment law attorney. The law limits the time you have to file a potential claim, so contact the attorneys at Pershing Square Law Firm today.