Supreme Court seems split on doctor’s discrimination suit

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed split Wednesday over whether a doctor’s discrimination lawsuit against a Texas medical center should be upheld.

Listening to the last arguments of the term, justices heard an appeal from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, which wants a discrimination lawsuit won by Dr. Naiel Nassar thrown out. Nassar left in 2006 after complaining of harassment, but Parkland Hospital withdrew its job offer after one of his former supervisors opposed it.

Nassar sued, saying the medical center retaliated against him for his discrimination complaints by encouraging Parkland to take away his job offer. A jury awarded him more than $3 million in damages.

The medical center appealed, saying the judge told the jury it only had to find that retaliation was a motivating factor in the supervisor’s actions, called mixed-motive. Instead, it said, the judge should have told the jury it had to find that retaliation was the only reason behind the supervisor’s actions for liability to attach.

The lower courts have split on that standard.

The medical center’s lawyer, Daryl L. Joseffer, says Congress did not specifically say in legislation that mixed-motive was allowable in retaliation claims. Nassar must prove that retaliation was the only reason behind the action “unless Congress has specifically relieved him of that burden by authorizing a mixed motive claim,” he said.

Nassar’s lawyer, Brian P. Lauten said Congress did not intend to make two different standards. “It 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,” he said.

But Justice Antonin Scalia said they can’t go by what Congress thought it did, only by what the text of the law says. “I don’t have to psychoanalyze Congress and say, ‘Did they really mean it, blah, blah, blah?’ It’s there in the statute,” he said.

Justice Elena Kagan argued that nowhere else is there two different standards of causation. “You’re coming in here and asking for the first time in all of those many decades that we should divorce the retaliation claim from the substantive discrimination claim and make them follow two different standards,” she said.

The case is University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 12-484. The justices will make their decision later this summer.

The morning session marked the end of the oral arguments for this term. The justices next hear arguments in October.