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U.S. Supreme Court Restricts Employment Discrimination Retaliation Claims

In a recent decision, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult for plaintiffs claiming retaliation to make employment discrimination claims. The court ruled that plaintiffs must prove that retaliation was the determinative factor in an adverse employment action, and not just a motivating factor as had been the previous standard.

Retaliation in California

State and federal law prohibit employers from taking adverse employment action against individuals for filing discrimination complaints, participating in a discrimination proceeding or opposing discrimination at work. Examples of adverse employment actions that an employer may use to dissuade individuals from filing complaints include:

  • Threats
  • Unjustified disciplinary actions
  • Firing
  • Refusal to hire
  • Promotion denial
  • Increased surveillance

Elements of a retaliation complaint

When filing a claim for retaliation in California, you must show that you engaged in an activity protected by law when your employer took an adverse action, and that there was a direct connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. Protected activities according to California law include filing a claim or assisting in the submission of a claim of discrimination or participating in the investigation of a complaint of discrimination based on one of the legally protected categories. You have one year from the date of the last act of harassment to file a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Significance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new standard

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that retaliation cases should have a stricter standard than regular employment discrimination cases. Typically, employers are held liable when illegal differential treatment was a motivating factor. Now, claimants have to meet a “but-for causation standard” — were it not for the plaintiff’s protected activity, the employer would not have taken the adverse action. Justice Kennedy also reasoned that a tougher standard is needed to dissuade the growing number of retaliation cases filed.

If you suspect that you were the victim of an adverse employment action because you exercised your legal right to file a discrimination complaint, contact an experienced employment discrimination attorney today.

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