If a worker is fired in part, but not entirely, due to discrimination, is that enough grounds for legal compensation?
A Texas trial court thought so, and in 2006 ordered a hospital to pay a $3 million judgment to a doctor who had been terminated. However, the hospital appealed, saying only termination based solely on discrimination entitles a plaintiff to compensation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).
Our Boston employment lawyers note the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to answer that question, which is posed in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar.
The plaintiff doctor, of Middle Eastern descent, had been employed as a faculty member with the university, which was affiliated with a local hospital where the faculty substantially comprises the hospital staff. The doctor was a clinician at the branch of the hospital specializing in HIV/AIDS treatment.
After about three years of employment, he came under the supervision of a new chief of infectious disease medicine. She immediately raised questions regarding his billing practices and productivity. The following year, she reportedly remarked that Middle Eastern people are lazy. She later told another staffer that the hospital had hired another “dark skin Muslim” like the plaintiff, adding that she would be watching their productivity more closely than others. When the other staffer noted the plaintiff’s high level of productivity, the supervisor became critical of his billing practices.
The plaintiff doctor was eventually promoted, but his billing and productivity were more closely scrutinized than other doctors by the infectious disease chief. A second promotion was blocked as a result, according to his discrimination claim.
The plaintiff doctor ultimately resigned, citing “continuing harassment and discrimination” by the chief. He eventually landed another position at an AIDS clinic in California, but later filed suit against his old employer for discrimination.
A jury awarded the doctor approximately $500,000 in back pay and another $3 million for compensatory damages.
Upon appeal, justices held that the doctor had failed to prove that his working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable employee would have felt compelled to quit. However, the court did uphold the jury’s finding that the doctor had been retaliated against. As such, the issue of monetary damages was sent back to the trial court for reconsideration.
In its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the employer conceded that while the decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins required that the plaintiff need only prove discrimination as a motivating factor for adverse employment actions, the decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services held a defendant employer would not be liable if the adverse action would have been taken for some other, non-discriminatory reason.
If the court finds in favor of the employer, it would have an impact on all future employment discrimination litigation, as it would increase the burden of proof required by the plaintiff. He or she would subsequently have to prove that discrimination was the sole reason, or at least the dominant reason, for adverse employment action, rather than one of several factors.
The Brown Law Firm, LLC, has offices in Belmont and Boston. For a free and confidential consultation, call 617-489-0817 or contact us online.
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, Jan. 18, 2013, U.S. Supreme Court Petition for Hearing Granted
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Feldman v. Olin: Employers Must Make Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities, Dec. 6, 2013, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog