Before starting on today’s blog entry, I do want to wish a speedy recovery to Justice Ginsburg. Regardless of your political views or your jurisprudential views, you can’t argue that Justice Ginsburg is not one of the legal titans of the late 20th and early 21st century. Wishing her a speedy recovery.


Today’s blog entry is a case that came down from the Ninth Circuit holding that causation for title I claims are, “but for.” We will explore the court’s reasoning, and then in the counterargument/thoughts section, I will proceed to tear that reasoning apart. Definitely, look for a petition for an en banc rehearing as a panel overrules prior Ninth Circuit precedent. The case of the day is Murray v. Mayo Clinic decided on August 20, 2019. The facts don’t really matter because causation is the question. What happened here was the plaintiff loses at trial. Plaintiff wanted a mixed motive instruction but got a but for instruction instead. Plaintiff appeals saying that instruction was in error. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are court’s reasoning and counterargument/takeaways. I imagine you will want to read the whole thing.



Court’s Reasoning

  1. Motivating factor is irreconcilable with Gross, discussed by us many times previously, such as here, and Nassar, discussed here.
  2. Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
  3. In 42 U.S.C. §12117(a), only one of the cross-referenced sections references a causation standard. That standard references motivating factor but that in turn focuses on a section that doesn’t talk about disability discrimination at all.
  4. The Supreme Court held in Gross that retaliation claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act were governed by a but for standard.
  5. The Supreme Court in Nassar held that title VII retaliation claims are also governed by a but for standard.
  6. After those two cases, Circuits have retreated from a motivating factor standard in ADA cases.
  7. The motivating factor standard for causation is appropriate for employment discrimination claims under title VII.
  8. The ADA does not contain any explicit motivating factor language.
  9. Under Gross, “on the basis of disability,” indicates but for causation.
  10. In the motivating factor section of the statute, disability is not mentioned. So, it would be improper to conclude that what Congress omitted from the statute is nevertheless within its scope.
  11. No meaningful textual difference exists between because of disability and on the basis of disability. The Second and Fourth Circuit found nothing in the legislative history indicating Congress intended to modify the ADA’s standard for causation.






  1. Both Gross and Nassar are easily distinguishable. In Gross, it was a retaliation claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Also, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act uses the term “because,” and not the term, “on the basis of.” Nassar was also a retaliation claim, this time under title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In that case, the Supreme Court specifically held that retaliation claims are governed by a but for standard. However, the majority opinion specifically noted that status based claims are not governed by that standard. Discrimination on the basis of disability is status based, and therefore, per Justice Kennedy, not subject to but for causation under Nassar.
  2. It is incorrect that legislative history doesn’t exist as to why Congress went with “on the basis,” v. “because.” More on that in a minute. I can tell you as a former member of the Illinois Senate Democratic legal staff, legislators and their staff counsel don’t go changing words for the heck of it (unless it is a shell bill, which the amendments to the ADA clearly were not). If they change a word, there is an intent behind it. In fact, legislative history discussing why the change was made does exist. I am clueless as to why nobody is finding it. In particular, H.R. Rep. 110-730 at the discussion of, “Discrimination on the Basis of Disability,” says that the reason why “on the basis,” was inserted into the ADA was to ensure that the more direct language, structured like title VII placed the emphasis on the critical inquiry of whether a qualified person with a disability has been discriminated against on the basis of his or her disability and not upon whether a particular person was even a person with a disability, and therefore, subject to the protection of the ADA in the first place. Further, that same section of the House Report goes on to say that the term “qualified,” remains in the ADA because the House wanted to make clear that the burden shifting framework applicable to cases involving the indirect method of proof applies to the ADA. Of course, that burden shifting framework presumes motivating factor.
  3. A motivating factor approach is consistent with achieving the purpose and findings behind the ADA in the first place as set forth in 42 U.S.C. §12101.
  4. If I am the plaintiff, I am definitely petitioning for rehearing en banc for two reasons. First, a panel overrules a prior decision of the Ninth Circuit. In many Circuits, that automatically generates an en banc rehearing. Second, a strong argument exists, as mentioned above, that the Ninth Circuit panel here misinterpreted Gross and misinterpreted Nassar. It also did not look at relevant legislative history. Perhaps, the attorneys had not read my book as the legislative history discussion with respect to the change from “because,” to “on the basis of,” appears on pages 173-174 of Understanding the ADA, fourth edition. The burden shifting discussion in the House Report immediately follows the discussion of the change to “on the basis of,” from, “because of.”
  5. Not all plaintiff lawyers are a fan of motivating factor. Some have told me that it is just too complicated. Juries are more likely to understand but for causation. Of course, the problem with but for is what happens when there is more than one cause, which is usually the case. A couple of things here. First, even cases talking about but for causation will mention that but for is not the same thing as sole cause . Second, if there is more than one cause, what standard can you use? We discussed one such possibility, necessary cause, here.
  6. This case is definitely worth following and eventually will make its way to the Supreme Court. When it get to the Supreme Court, it will be very interesting as persons with disabilities have not fared well when it comes to employment issues. On the other hand, this isn’t really an employment law question, but rather a question of how broadly the statute should be read, whether two United States Supreme Court cases are being interpreted properly, and the importance of legislative history that for reasons unknown was not brought forth.