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Supreme Court Makes Discrimination Cases Harder to Defend

Winning discrimination claims may have just gotten easier for employees, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling. How will this opinion affect your employment decisions?

A recent decision by the Supreme Court appears to give employees an advantage in proving their discrimination claims. In Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., No. 99-536 (6/12/00), the Court determined that courts can conclude that discrimination has occurred if the employee both proves the elements of a "prima facie" discrimination case and shows that the employer’s stated reasons for an employment decision were false. The Court’s conclusion resolves a conflict between the Circuit Courts of Appeals by finding that employees may not have to provide extra evidence of age discrimination in order to win a claim, as some of the courts have required. Although this verdict will appeal primarily to employees’ lawyers since it focuses on what employees must prove to succeed on their discrimination claims, it also reinforces for employers the importance of having adequate documentation to support their employment decisions.

Employee Discredited Stated Reasons for Termination

According to the facts of the case, the employee, who was 57 years old, supervised the "regular line" of a toilet manufacturer’s Hinge Room and had been employed for 40 years. He was terminated after an audit of the Hinge Room’s timesheets revealed what the employer characterized as "numerous timekeeping errors and misrepresentations" and was replaced by three successive supervisors under 40. The employee filed suit, alleging that the employer fired him because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

At trial, the employer alleged that it terminated the employee for failing to maintain accurate attendance records. The employee countered that the employer’s stated explanation was a pretext, or a smokescreen, for age discrimination. The employee supported his charge by showing that he had not made the recordkeeping errors alleged. In addition, he introduced evidence that his manager had made negative comments about his age and treated him more severely than younger employees. A jury found in favor of the employee and awarded him almost $100,000 in damages. The employer appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the verdict, finding that the employee had not provided enough evidence for a jury to find age discrimination. According to the Fifth Circuit, it was not sufficient for the employee to show that the employer’s stated reasons for termination were false. He also had to prove that the firing was motivated by age discrimination. Using this standard, the Fifth Circuit found that the age-based comments were not enough to support a finding of discrimination. The employee appealed to the Supreme Court.

Court Addresses Conflict Regarding Burden of Proof

The Supreme Court agreed to review the case to resolve a conflict in the Circuit Courts of Appeals regarding what employees must show to prove discrimination. Generally, the appeals courts have agreed that to prove an age discrimination claim, the employee must first establish a "prima facie" case of discrimination by showing the following elements:

1. he was protected by the ADEA because he was over 40;

2. he was otherwise qualified to perform the job he was terminated from;

3. he suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination; and

4. he was replaced by a younger person.

Once the employee proves these elements, the burden shifts to the employer to present a nondiscriminatory reason for its employment decision. If the employer can provide the nondiscriminatory reason, the burden shifts back to the employee to prove that the employer’s offered reason is false.

The Courts of Appeals have disagreed about whether the employee must then provide additional evidence of discrimination once he has shown that the employer’s stated reason is false. Six Courts of Appeals, including the Third, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, contend that if the employee provides enough evidence that the employer’s stated reasons for the adverse employment action were false, the court or jury can conclude that the alleged discrimination occurred. In contrast, the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, and D.C. Circuits have ruled that employees must show not only that the employer’s stated reason for its action was false, but also that the real reason was, in fact, discrimination.

No Further Evidence Necessary to Show Age Discrimination

The Supreme Court accepted the lower standard of the Third, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits. It determined that an employee may be able to prove age discrimination, after proving a prima facie case of discrimination, simply by showing that the employer’s offered reason for termination is false. According to the Court, a judge or jury could reasonably conclude that the employer provided an untrue reason for the employment decision in order to cover up a discriminatory purpose, without considering any further indication of discrimination. Applying the standard in this case, the Court determined that the employee clearly made a prima facie case and provided sufficient evidence that the stated reason for his termination was false and, therefore, reversed the Fifth Circuit’s opinion and reinstated the jury’s verdict. The Court, however, also emphasized that there could be other cases in which showing that the employer’s explanation is false would not be enough to prove discrimination. For example, the employer could avoid liability by providing another nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action.

Support Decisions with Documentation

This case really focuses on the legal mechanics of discrimination decisions, i.e, on what employees and employers must prove under the law in order to prevail. However, a close analysis of the decision also underscores two important points:

1. termination decisions must be based on job-related, nondiscriminatory reasons; and

2. you should be able to support those decisions with documentation.

In this case, the employer offered a job-related reason for the older employee’s termination, namely recordkeeping mistakes, that it could not support. As a result, the employee won the case because he was able to discredit the employer’s stated reason.

This article is not intended as legal advice. Readers are encouraged to seek appropriate legal or other professional advice.

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