Establishing a Discrimination Case
Wednesday, May 14, 2008 .
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently held that the question of whether a plaintiff in a discrimination suit made out a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 793 (1973), “is almost always irrelevant” when the district court considers an employer’s motion for summary judgment or decides a case at trial. See Brady v. Office of Sergeant at Arms, Case No. 06-5362 (March 28, 2008). Typically, under McDonnell Douglas, which sets forth the burden of proof for Title VII cases, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie (at first glance) case by showing that he/she was treated worse than someone not in his/her protected class before the burden shifts to the employer to set forth its reason for the challenged action. The D.C. Circuit, however, called the prima case “a largely unnecessary sideshow” that wastes litigant and judicial resources.
In this case, the district court granted summary judgment to the Office of Sergeant at Arms (House of Representatives) on grounds that the plaintiff could not show that a similarly situated employee outside his racial group was treated differently, and therefore, had not made out a prima facie case of race discrimination. The plaintiff, a supervisor, was demoted after employees alleged that he sexually harassed them. The plaintiff, however, like many plaintiffs, was unable to find another supervisor, not of his race, who had faced similar charges to whom he could compare himself. The D.C. Circuit disregarded this issue, holding that the lack of a similarly situated comparator was unimportant and that the lower court’s focus on the prima facie case was misplaced.
The court reasoned that by the time the lower court considers an employer’s motion for summary judgment, the employer will have asserted a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the challenged decision. The court held “[t]hat’s important because once the employer asserts a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, the question whether the employee actually made out a prima facie case is ‘no longer relevant’ and thus ‘disappear[s]’ and ‘drops out of the picture.'” The court cited to Supreme Court cases that comport with this holding, including St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 510 (1993); Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143 (2000) and U.S. Postal Serv. Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 715 (1983) (where the Supreme Court held that “Where the defendant has done everything that would be required of him if the plaintiff had properly made out a prima facie case, whether the plaintiff really did so is no longer relevant.”).
The D.C Circuit concluded its decision by stating:
“Lest there be any lingering uncertainty, we state the rule clearly: In a Title VII disparate-treatment suit where an employee has suffered an adverse employment action and an employer has asserted a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the decision, the district court need not and should not decide whether the plaintiff actually made out a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas. Rather, in considering an employer’s motion for summary judgment or judgment as a matter of law in those circumstances, the district court must resolve one central question: Has the employee produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the employer’s asserted non-discriminatory reason was not the actual reason and that the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin?”
Unfortunately for the plaintiff in this case, the D.C Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision on summary judgment and determined that the plaintiff did not produce sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the agency’s stated reason was not the actual reason and that the employer intentionally discriminated against him.