Employers face greater challenge in defending discrimination lawsuits
In a case of first impression, Quigg v. Thomas County School District, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the burden-shifting framework (known as “McDonell Douglas”) established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 for cases involving mixed-motive discrimination claims. Instead, the Court adopted a less stringent standard, allowing claims to proceed where the plaintiff is able to show that (1) the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff and (2) a protected characteristic was a motivating factor for the adverse employment action.
If a plaintiff can do that, ruled the Eleventh Circuit, then his or her claims should be allowed to proceed to trial.
The plaintiff (Quigg) served as the assistant superintendent of the Thomas County School District from 1998 to 2007. In 2007, Quigg became superintendent of the school district in 2008. She was given satisfactory or above-satisfactory performance reviews during the years of 2008, 2009, and 2010, despite having a turbulent relationship with a number of school board members. Quigg’s contract was up for renewal in 2011, and the school board agreed to vote on her contract in February 2011.
In late 2010, two school board members suggested to Quigg that she reorganize her administration to include an assistant superintendent. In particular, the school board members told Quigg that she needed a tough “hatchet man” who would be a “guy” she could send to schools to handle problems. Additionally, both school board members recommended a specific male employee for the position. In response, Quigg suggested a female employee, but her suggestion was met with resistance and one of the school board members made additional comments that a male would make a better assistant superintendent. In addition to these comments made directly to Quigg, one school board member commented to a parent that it was “time to put a man in there” when discussing the superintendent or assistant superintendent positions.
The school board held the vote on Quigg’s contract as scheduled and voted 5-2 to not renew her contract. Included in the votes against her were the two school board members who had encouraged Quigg to hire a male assistant superintendent. After the vote, a third school board member told a school district employee that she voted against Quigg because Quigg needed a strong male to work under her to handle problems.
A few months after the vote, Quigg filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and then filed suit under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for gender discrimination and retaliation. After discovery was complete, the school board and individual school board members moved for summary judgment, arguing that Quigg presented only circumstantial evidence of discrimination (not direct evidence) so the McDonnell Douglas framework should apply. The trial court agreed, and granted summary judgment on all of Quigg’s claims. Quigg appealed.
Eleventh Circuit reverses summary judgment on discrimination claims
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit first addressed the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas and the reason it should not be applied to a mixed-motive case, like the one brought by Quigg. To begin, the Court stated the McDonell Douglas framework is “fatally inconsistent” with a mixed-motive theory for the simple reason that the framework is premised on the assumption that there is only one “true reason” for the adverse employment action at issue. That is to say, in a single-motive case, a plaintiff tries to show that the defendant’s “true reason” for taking the adverse employment action against him or her relates to the plaintiff’s protected characteristic (that is, gender, race, religion, national origin, etc.). The defendant responds by demonstrating that the “true reason” was something unrelated to the plaintiff’s protected characteristic (such as misconduct, lack of experience or education, external market forces, etc.). The court found that this type of burden shifting is not applicable in a mixed-motive case where the plaintiff claims that the defendant was motivated—only in part—by the plaintiff’s protected characteristic.
The court then turned to a 2008 case decided by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., in determining the appropriate standard to apply to mixed-motive cases. The court relied on the principle that a plaintiff may prove a mixed-motive claim by showing that the defendant’s consideration of a protected characteristic was a motivating factor. Under this new framework, the Court held that a plaintiff will survive summary judgment if he or she has offered evidence sufficient to convince a jury that—
(1) the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff and
(2) a protected characteristic was a motivating factor for the defendant’s adverse employment action.
Applying this framework to Quigg’s claims, the court concluded that the statements by the school board members—both before and after the school board vote—constituted circumstantial evidence of gender discrimination. Moreover, the evidence was sufficient to convince a jury that the statements indicated the school board members considered Quigg’s gender in deciding to not renew her contract. Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment on Quigg’s discrimination claims. The court did not, however, find sufficient evidence of causation to warrant reversing summary judgment on Quigg’s retaliation claims. The Court affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on those claims.
What does this mean for employers?
By adopting a more lenient standard in mixed-motive cases, the Eleventh Circuit makes it easier for employees to survive summary judgment and proceed to trial on mixed-motive discrimination claims. As a result, employees need only present enough evidence to show that discrimination influenced an employer’s actions. Under this framework, it is now even more important for employers to be sensitive to discrimination in the workforce and take a proactive role in preventing and immediately addressing any discriminatory conduct. To effectively do so, employers must have a comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy in place. These policies must be clearly communicated to all employees—from line workers to upper management. Employers must take any complaints of discrimination seriously and take the necessary steps to investigate and redress those complaints. As the Eleventh Circuit’s newest development makes clear, discrimination in any form may expose employers to costly litigation.
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