By Dave Strausfeld, J.D. The McDonnell Douglas framework is not the proper framework for evaluating mixed-motive claims that rely on circumstantial evidence, held the Eleventh Circuit. Instead, a court should evaluate whether (1) the employee suffered an adverse employment action; and (2) a protected characteristic was a motivating factor for the adverse employment action. Under this framework, a school superintendent survived summary judgment on her claim that the school board’s decision not to renew her contract was attributable, at least in part, to her sex, violating both Title VII and Section 1983 (Quigg v. Thomas County School District, February 22, 2016, Wilson, C.). Legal framework in dispute. Relying on a mixed-motive theory, the school superintendent alleged that one reason her contract was not renewed—even if it was not the only reason—was her gender. When the district court dismissed her claims on summary judgment, applying the McDonnell Douglas framework in accordance with circuit practice, she appealed, arguing that this was not the proper framework for evaluating a mixed-motive claim based on circumstantial evidence. The Eleventh Circuit agreed and ultimately altered its framework for evaluating those claims. No direction from Supreme Court on this. When in 2003 the Supreme Court held in Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, that a mixed-motive discrimination claim can be established with circumstantial evidence, it opened the door to claims like the superintendent’s here. Desert Palace did not resolve the question of what summary judgment framework should be used for circumstantial-evidence mixed-motive claims, leaving this issue to the lower courts to resolve. In previous cases, the Eleventh Circuit had relied on the McDonnell Douglas framework. But the appeals court now decided that a different approach was needed. Clear incongruity. The McDonnell Douglas framework “is fatally inconsistent with the mixed-motive theory of discrimination,” the court declared, “because the framework is predicated on proof of a single, ‘true reason’ for an adverse action.” The very idea behind a mixed-motive theory is that the employer had more than one reason for its action. “In light of this clear incongruity between the McDonnell Douglas framework and mixed-motive claims, it is improper to use that framework to evaluate such claims at summary judgment,” the court announced. What is the proper framework? Instead of McDonnell Douglas, the correct framework, the court ruled, is the one the Sixth Circuit adopted in White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp.: A court should ask only whether the employee has offered evidence sufficient to convince a jury that (1) he or she suffered an adverse employment action; and (2) a protected characteristic was a motivating factor for the adverse employment action. Unlike McDonnell Douglas with its burden-shifting, this framework allows “a straightforward inquiry into whether the plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence of mixed-motive discrimination,” the court explained. What other circuits do. Most other circuits have likewise rejected the McDonnell Douglas framework in this context or at least have held it is not required to be used, the court noted. In fact, the Eighth Circuit appeared to be alone in holding that the McDonnell Douglas approach must be applied to mixed-motive cases involving circumstantial evidence. School superintendent’s claims. Applying its newly announced framework to the superintendent’s case, she had clearly suffered an adverse action when her contract was not renewed, and she offered sufficient evidence that her gender was a motivating factor. Various school board members had made statements, she showed, indicating they preferred men for positions within the office of the superintendent. For instance, one school board member allegedly commented that the superintendent needed “a strong male to work under her to handle problems, someone who could get tough.” A jury could find that this and other comments were not simply “stray remarks” but rather were connected to the school board’s decision not to renew her contract. The school board attempted to establish a defense, or partial defense, by showing that it would have taken the same action in any event. But genuine factual disputes existed about whether she would have had enough votes to retain her job if not for the alleged gender bias of certain board members, so the school board could not establish a “same decision” defense. The superintendent also avoided summary judgment on her Section 1983 mixed-motive discrimination claims against two individual school board members.
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