U.S. High Court Hears Arguments On Proof Of Title VII Retaliation Claims

U.S. High Court Hears Arguments On Proof Of Title VII Retaliation Claims

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) A Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 retaliation claim must prove but-for causation, the attorney representing the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) argued before the U.S. Supreme Court April 24 (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Naiel Nassar, No. 12-484, U.S. Sup.) [lexis.com subscribers may access the Supreme Court briefs in this case].

(Oral arguments transcript available. Document #73-130510-007T.)

"In the 1991 amendments . . . Congress authorized mixed motive treatment only for Title VII claims that challenge . . . discrimination based on membership in a protected class, not for retaliation claims," attorney Daryl L. Joseffer of King & Spalding in Washington told the justices. As a result, the court must follow the guidelines established in Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc. (557 U.S. 167 [2009]) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], Joseffer argued.

But Brian P. Lauten of Sawicki & Lauten in Dallas, representing respondent Dr. Naiel Nassar, countered that "[i]t does not make any sense at all for Congress to have created two causation standards under the same statute in 1991 without saying anything about it at all." Instead, he said, Congress already believed retaliation was encompassed within discrimination based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park Inc. (396 U.S. 229 [1969]) [enhanced version], and Congress believed retaliation was a much broader provision that went beyond conditions in the workplace based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White (548 U.S. 53 [2006]) [enhanced version].

Critical Supervisor

Nassar, who is of Middle Eastern descent, was hired by UTSW in 1995 to work in Parkland Hospital's Amelia Court Clinic. After three years, Nassar pursued additional training at the University of California at Davis.

In 2001, Nassar returned to UTSW as an assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases and associate medical director of the clinic. Dr. Beth Levine was hired in June 2004 as chief of infectious disease medicine. She oversaw the Amelia Clinic but did not work there on a daily basis. Almost immediately, Levine began inquiring about Nassar's productivity and billing practices. In late 2005, when referring to another doctor of Middle Eastern descent, Levine said in Nassar's presence, "Middle Easterners are lazy."

In the spring of 2006, in reference to the hiring of that same doctor, Levine said they have "hired another one" in the presence of Dr. Phillip Keiser, Nassar's immediate supervisor. Keiser told Nassar what Levine had said and also informed Nassar that Levine scrutinized Nassar's productivity more than that of other doctors. When Keiser had presented Levine with objective data demonstrating Nassar's high productivity, Levine began criticizing Nassar's billing practices. Levine's criticism did not take into account that Nassar's salary was funded by a federal grant that precluded billing for most of his services.

Around the same time, Levine suggested that Nassar consider applying for a promotion to become an associate professor. Nassar was promoted March 1, 2006, effective Sept. 1, 2006.

Despite the promotion, Nassar claimed that Levine's harassment continued, and he began to look for a way to continue working at the clinic without being a UTSW faculty member subject to Levine's supervision. On June 3, 2006, Parkland offered Nassar a job as a staff physician on Parkland's payroll, starting July 10, 2006. Nassar resigned from UTSW on July 3. Dr. Gregory Fitz, UTSW's chair of Internal Medicine and Levine's immediate supervisor, opposed Parkland's hiring Nassar. He claimed that UTSW had a right to fill Parkland doctor positions with UTSW faculty.

Fitz's opposition prompted Parkland to withdraw its offer. Nassar then accepted a position at a smaller HIV/AIDS clinic in Fresno, Calif.

Federal Suit

In August 2008, Nassar sued UTSW in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, alleging that UTSW had constructively discharged him and retaliated against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The jury trial was bifurcated into a liability phase and a damages phase. At the close of Nassar's case in the liability phase, UTSW moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), which the District Court denied.

The jury found that Nassar's resignation from UTSW was the result of constructive discharge and that UTSW blocked Parkland from hiring Nassar in retaliation for Nassar's statements in the July 3 letter. Nassar moved for front pay to be included as part of his recovery. The District Court denied that motion and proceeded with the damages phase of the trial. The jury awarded Nassar $436,167.66 in back pay and over $3 million in compensatory damages.

UTSW then filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, a motion for new trial and a motion for remittitur. The District Court denied UTSW's motions for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial. The District Court did, however, grant UTSW's motion for remittitur because of Title VII's compensatory damages cap, which required reducing the compensatory damage award to $300,000. Nassar then moved for attorney fees, and the District Court awarded him $489,927.50 in fees plus court costs. UTSW appealed. Nassar cross-appealed, challenging the District Court's denial of front pay.

Liability For Discharge

The Fifth Circuit panel vacated the District Court's judgment regarding UTSW's liability for constructive discharge but affirmed the court's judgment regarding liability for retaliation. It remanded for reconsideration of Nassar's monetary recovery and the award of attorney fees.

UTSW petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.

Assistant to the Solicitor General Melissa A. Sherry presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court on behalf of the United States and in support of Nassar. "There is not a single statute that Petitioner can point to and not a single statute that I am aware of where Congress has ever expressly adopted two different causation standards with respect to intentional discrimination under the same statute," she told the justices.

Counsel

Joseffer of King & Spalding in Washington, D.C., represents UTSW. Lauten of Sawicki & Lauten in Dallas represents Nassar.

H. Christopher Bartolomucci of Bancroft PLLC in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of American Council on Education and Six Other Higher Education Organizations. Solicitor General John J. Bursch in Lansing, Mich., filed an amicus brief on behalf of Michigan and 11 other states. Michael Foreman of Civil Rights Appellate Clinic in University Park, Pa., filed an amicus brief on behalf of National Employment Lawyers Association, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, et al. Charlotte Garden of Seattle University School of Law in Seattle filed an amicus brief on behalf of Committee of Interns and Residents SEIU, Doctors Council SEIU and Korean American Medical Association.

Gregory G. Garre of Latham & Watkins in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America and the Retail Litigation Center. Neal Goldfarb of Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Employment Justice Center and Employment Litigators. Jon M. Greenbaum of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. David J. Hacker of Alliance Defending Freedom in Folsom, Calif., filed an amicus brief on behalf of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Alliance Defending Freedom.

Samer B. Korkor of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, et al. Francisco M. Negron Jr. of National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., filed an amicus brief on behalf of National School Boards Association. Aaron M. Nisenson of American Association of University Professors in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of American Association of University Professors. Alice M. O'Brien of National Education Association in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of National Education Association. Benjamin G. Robbins of New England Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief on behalf of New England Legal Foundation.

Mary M. Ross of DRI in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., filed an amicus brief on behalf of DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar. Assistant to the Solicitor General Melissa A. Sherry and Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of the United States. Sandra F. Sperino of the University of Cincinnati College of Law in Cincinnati filed an amicus brief on behalf of Employment Law Professors. Rae T. Vann of Norris, Tysse, Lampley & Lakis in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of Equal Employment Advisory Council, National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center and American Hospital Association.

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