Supreme Court Lowers the Bar for Proving Workplace Discrimination

In a recent decision with broad implications for health care employers concerned with workplace litigation, the United States Supreme Court relaxed the requirements for individuals attempting to prove on-the-job discrimination. In doing so, the Court lowered the bar for plaintiffs to get their cases before juries under federal anti-discrimination laws. It is expected this decision will assume its place with other major Supreme Court cases in defining the rights and obligations created by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The case, Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., involved allegations of age discrimination. However, the Court's decision clarified the kind and amount of evidence necessary to prove intentional discrimination involving other types of claims.

At issue in the Reeves case was the legal procedure for parties presenting their cases to federal courts in employee lawsuits under the federal anti-discrimination laws. Courts in every circuit have required plaintiffs first to prove a prima facie case of discrimination. Once done, the defendants then must articulate legitimate business reasons for their adverse employment actions. Here is where the circuits differ: some stated that once the defendants' reasons were shown to be a pretext, the case went to the jury to decide whether, in fact, the employer discriminated. Others, including the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit which decided the Reeves case, said that before the case went to the jury, plaintiffs were required to prove the defendants' reasons were a pretext plus that discrimination was the real reason for the adverse action.

Mr. Reeves, a 57-year old supervisor with 40 years of service, was terminated from his job at a plumbing supplies manufacturer for "numerous timekeeping errors and misrepresentations" concerning the attendance and tardiness of employees in his department. He subsequently sued his former employer alleging the real reason for his termination was age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. At trial, Reeves presented evidence from which a jury ultimately determined the employer had discriminated and awarded Reeves nearly $100,000 in damages and front pay.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit overturned the jury's award, finding Reeves' evidence insufficient to prove unlawful discrimination. It ruled that, although Reeves had cast sufficient doubt on the employer's stated reasons for the termination, he had not actually shown the termination was motivated by age bias. In short, he had not proved pretext plus.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. The High Court held that after a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case and produces evidence that the employer's stated reason for the action is false, a jury may conclude the employer acted unlawfully. "In appropriate circumstances the trier of fact can reasonably infer from the falsity of the explanation that the employer is dissembling to cover up a discriminatory purpose....once the employer's justification has been eliminated, discrimination may well be the most likely alternative explanation, especially since the employer is in the best position to put forth the actual reason for its decision," the Court wrote.

A showing that the employer's stated reason is false will not always be enough to find the employer liable, the Court noted. "...'it is not enough ... to dis believe the employer; the factfinder must believe the plaintiff's explanation of intentional discrimination.'" For instance, if the litigation conclusively revealed another, nondiscriminatory reason for the decision, or if the plaintiff's evidence was weak in the face of other proof that no discrimination had occurred, there would be no liability.

From a litigation defense standpoint, motions for summary judgment are likely to be harder to win given the Court's ruling on the kind and amount of evidence needed to show proof of an employer's discriminatory actions. If more cases ultimately go to a jury where the employer's chances of prevailing are diminished and the stakes are higher, there is likely to be a corresponding rise, not only in the already explosive number of employee lawsuits and fair employment practice agency complaints, but in the pressure to settle cases out of court -- and in the cost of doing so.

Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to more fully discuss the implications of this case.