University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

PETITIONER:University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
LOCATION: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

DOCKET NO.: 12-484
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jan 18, 2013
ARGUED: Apr 24, 2013
DECIDED: Jun 24, 2013

Brian P. Lauten – for the respondent
Daryl L. Joseffer – for the petitioner
Melissa Arbus Sherry – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the respondent

Facts of the case

Dr. Naiel Nassar, who is of Middle Eastern descent, was hired by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) in 1995 to work at the Amelia Court Clinic (Clinic), which specializes in HIV/AIDS treatment. After three years there, he left to pursue additional training and returned in 2001 as an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases and Associate Medical Director of the Clinic. His immediate supervisor at the Clinic was Dr. Philip Keiser, whose supervisor at UTSW was Dr. Beth Levine. After being hired in 2004, Levine immediately began inquiring into Nassar’s productivity and billing practices. In 2005, after interviewing a candidate who was of Middle Eastern descent, Levine stated in Nassar’s presence, “Middle Easterners are lazy.” In 2006, after hiring the candidate, Levine made a similar statement in Keiser’s presence. Keiser informed Nassar of these comments as well as the fact that Levine scrutinized Nassar’s productivity more than any other doctor. Around this time, Nassar applied for a promotion that Levine actively undermined. In 2006, Nassar resigned from the UTSW faculty and cited Levine’s harassment and the creation of an unhealthy work environment in his resignation letter. Nassar resigned with the understanding that he would be offered a position at the Amelia Court Clinic unaffiliated with the UTSW, but the Clinic was forced to withdraw its offer after heavy opposition from the UTSW faculty, who have an agreement with the Clinic regarding positions to be filled by faculty doctors.

In 2008, Nassar sued UTSW under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and argued that UTSW had constructively discharged and retaliated against him. The jury found in favor of Nassar and awarded him back pay and compensatory damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that there was sufficient evidence to support the retaliation claim but insufficient evidence to support the claim of constructive discharge.


Does the retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 require a plaintiff to prove that an employer would not have taken an action but for the existence of an improper motive, or does the provision require only proof that the employer had mixed motives for taking an action?

Media for University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 2013 (Part 2) in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 24, 2013 in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 2013 (Part 1) in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy also has our opinion this morning in Case 12-484, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center versus Nassar.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

When the law grants persons the right to compensation for injury from wrongful conduct, there must be some demonstrated connection, some link between the injury sustained and the wrong that’s alleged.

And that connection between wrong and the injury is governed principles of causation and this case requires the Court to define those causation rules and the context of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, particularly with reference to employment discrimination.

That Act provides remedies to employees who are injured by employment discrimination and in this case, the Court discusses the causation rules for two categories of employer conduct that’s prohibited by Title VII.

The first is what we call “status-based discrimination,” that is discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

That discrimination is made unlawful by what we can call here Section 2 (a).

The second type of unlawful conduct is under the Act, is employer retaliation for employee’s opposition to or an employee’s complaints about workplace discrimination and retaliation is prohibited by Section 3 (a), so there’s 2 (a) and 3 (a).

The petitioner here is the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, respondent, Dr. Nassar is a medical doctor of Middle Eastern descent.

Until July 2006, he was a member of the University faculty and he was also a staff physician at one of its affiliated hospitals.

Now, one of respondent’s university supervisors was a Dr. Beth Levine.

And Levine expressed the view that Middle Easterners are lazy and she gave particularly close scrutiny to the respondent’s billing practices.

Desiring to escape Levine’s oversight, respondent sought an arrangement where he could work at the hospital but not at the university and he reached a tentative deal with the hospital.

Then he quit his teaching job and he sent various administrators a letter describing Levine’s alleged harassment.

One of these administrators then contacted the hospital to oppose respondent’s hiring.

And he asserted that the institutions affiliation agreement reserved staff physician post for faculty members and the doctor was no longer a member of the faculty.

So, the hospital withdrew its offer.

Respondent then filed suit in federal court.

He alleged the university’s opposition was retaliation for his having complained about Levine.

There were other claims as well, but the retaliation claim was the relevant one here.

And on that claim, the jury was instructed that but for causation was not required and applying that standard, the jury found for the respondent and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

This Court addressed that issue of causation and employment discrimination in a 1989 case, called Price Waterhouse versus Hopkins, and that case allowed recovery on status-based claims under a lessened causation standard.

Congress then amended the statute.

That amendment allowed recovery based on lessened causation, but it did limit the remedies that are available when that test was applied.

Then in the case of Gross versus FBL Financial Services in 2009, this Court considered a different statue that age discrimination in Employment Act and in Gross, the Court held that but for causation, not lessened causation was applicable.

Today, the Court again interprets Title VII and the question is whether the provision that Congress amended, a provision that applies but its terms only to status-based discrimination, should be extended so that it also includes retaliation claims.

And today, the Court holds, it should not be extended to those claims and this holding is consistent with the reasoning of Gross and the analysis is based on an interpretation of the text and structure of Title VII.

Title VII’s retaliation provision makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees because he has opposed or supported a complaint that alleges unlawful employment discrimination.

And in general, requiring proof that a certain effect occurred because of a ceratin action, means that the effect would not have happened absent that action.

In the context of this statute, there is no persuasive reason not to give the word “because” the standard meaning.

It is true, as respondent argues that the 1991 Amendment provides for the lessened causation standard for some Title VII claims, but that provision applies by its own terms only to claims alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, the status-based claims that were noted here at the outset.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

It says nothing about retaliation.

When Congress created that lessened causation standard in 1991, it added this as a part of Section 2, which is Title VII’s bar on status-based discrimination, rather than in a statutory section dealing with retaliation.

These textural and structural clues as well as others discussed in greater detail in the opinion show that retaliation claims must be proved according to the normal rule of but for causation and these requires proof that allegedly unlawful action would not have occurred in the absence of a motive to retaliate.

Because the Court of Appeals applied the lessened causation standard rather than the “but for standard” the statute requires, its judgment is vacated.

The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Bryer, Sotomayor, and Kagan join.