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Disproving Employer Justification for Termination

According to a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., an employee may have a right to a jury trial based on discrimination even where no direct evidence of discrimination is offered. The Reeves decision clarifies the standard of proof a plaintiff must meet to submit an employment discrimination case to a jury.

Burdine Hicks Discrimination Analysis

The elements establishing a prima facie case of discrimination are set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973). The U.S. Supreme Court further defined the order for the presentation of proof in an employment discrimination case, and the burden of production of such proof, in its decisions in Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine (1981) and St. Mary’s Honor Center v. Hicks (1993), often collectively referred to as the “Burdine Hicks” analysis. Where hard evidence of discrimination is not available, circumstantial evidence is permitted as a means of proving wrongful conduct. Under this approach, courts require that the following steps be taken in connection to such claims:

  1. The plaintiff presents a prima facie case for discrimination. This is established by alleging that the plaintiff was 1) in a protected class, e.g., race, religion, age, etc., 2) was qualified for the position, and 3) suffered adverse employment action based on the plaintiff’s status as a member of the protected class. Adverse employment action includes terminations, demotions, etc.
  2. The employer provides a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.
  3. The employee proves that the employer’s stated reasons are merely pretextual (i.e., an excuse or cover-up) for unlawful acts of discrimination.

Reeves Decision Resolves Federal Court Split of Decisions

In Hicks, the Supreme Court stated that the plaintiff’s successful showing that the employer’s stated reasons are merely pretextual (element three, above) does not amount to an automatic judgment for the plaintiff. Stated differently, in order for the plaintiff to prevail, a judge or jury must be convinced that the employer’s actions were intentionally discriminatory.

Federal courts around the nation interpreted this instruction differently. Some courts held that the plaintiff not only held the burden of demonstrating that the employer’s reasons for termination were false, but that they also had to show direct evidence of discrimination. Other federal courts held that once the plaintiff has shown that the employer’s reasons for termination were false, the plaintiff need not provide direct evidence of discrimination in order to prevail. As a result of inconsistent federal court rules, the Supreme Court took the opportunity to clarify the standard of proof in the Reeves decision.

In Reeves, a 57-year-old employee brought an age discrimination action after being terminated. The employer’s stated reasons for terminating the plaintiff were that the plaintiff had “failed to maintain accurate attendance records.” However, at trial, the employee presented evidence that he had accurately and correctly performed such duties. Subsequently, a jury awarded damages to the plaintiff.

However, on appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court reversed the award of damages, holding that the plaintiff never provided direct evidence of discrimination. The court acknowledged the fact that the plaintiff had discredited the employer’s reasons for termination, but held that this was insufficient evidence to sustain the jury’s finding of unlawful discrimination; the court held that the plaintiff failed to provide sufficient evidence for a jury to find that he had been discriminated against due to his age.

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision and sustained the jury’s award of damages, holding that it was improper to require such plaintiffs to provide direct evidence in such scenarios. The Court found that although the plaintiff provided no direct evidence, it was still possible for a jury to find discrimination based on circumstantial evidence. The Court qualified its decision, however, by noting that an employer might be able to avoid the necessity of sending a case to a jury if the employer can show an alternative, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination.

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