Monday, July 7, 2008

6th Circuit decides standard of proof for mixed motive cases

Disparate treatment claims under Title VII are categorized as either single-motive claims (where only an illegitimate reason motivated the employment decision), or mixed-motive claims (where both legitimate and illegitimate reasons motivated the decision). Mixed-motive claims are specifically covered in 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(m): "An unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice."
In Desert Palace v. Costa, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a plaintiff may prove a Title VII mixed-motive case by either direct or circumstantial evidence, and held that to obtain a mixed-motive jury instruction, "a plaintiff need only present sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude, by a preponderance of the evidence, that ‘'race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice.'" The opinion left open the issue of whether the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework should apply to a summary judgment analysis of mixed-motive discrimination claims based on circumstantial evidence as it applies to single-motive discrimination claims based on indirect evidence.
Since Desert Palace, the 6th Circuit has been silent on the issue of the proper evidentiary framework to apply to mixed-motive cases at the summary judgment stage. Some circuits have expressly applied the McDonnell Douglas analysis, some have applied a modified McDonnell Douglas approach, under with a plaintiff can rebut the employer's legitimate non-discriminatory reason either with evidence of pretext or evidence of the mixed motive.Yet another approach is to permit the plaintiff to rebut the employer's legitimate non-discriminatory reason with evidence that a discriminatory reason more likely than not motivated the decision.
In White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., decided last week, the 6th Circuit finally weighed in on this issue:
The McDonnell Douglas / Burdine burden-shifting framework does not apply to the summary judgment analysis of Title VII mixed-motive claims. We likewise hold that to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment, a Title VII plaintiff asserting a mixed-motive claim need only produce evidence sufficient to convince a jury that: (1) the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff; and (2) "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor" for the defendant’s adverse employment action.... This burden of producing some evidence in support of a mixed-motive claim is not onerous and should preclude sending the case to the jury only where the record is devoid of evidence that could reasonably be construed to support the plaintiff’s claim.
The Court, however, did not totally dismiss any applicability of McDonnell Douglas to mixed-motive cases:
Although the employee need not establish a McDonnell Douglas prima facie case to defeat a motion for summary judgment on a mixed-motive claim, setting forth a prima facie case of discrimination under McDonnell Douglas can aid the employee in showing that an illegitimate reason motivated the adverse employment decision. [Likewise, in] assessing whether an employee has demonstrated that an illegitimate reason was a motivating factor in the employer’s adverse decision, the court should also consider evidence presented by the employer that the protected characteristic was not a motivating factor for its employment decision. (quoting Wright v. Murray Guard, Inc., 455 F.3d 702, 720 (6th Cir. 2006) (Moore, J., concurring)).
Thus, to survive summary judgment in a mixed-motive case, the plaintiff need only show:
  1. an adverse action, and
  2. some evidence that the protected class was a motivating factor for that adverse action.
This burden is low, and will likely make it much easier for plaintiffs in the 6th Circuit (and most likely Ohio state courts, which follow 6th Circuit precedent) to defeat summary judgment in a mixed-motive case. It will also create an incentive for employees to frame their cases as mixed-motive cases, because these cases will be more likely to go to a jury under this standard than single-motive cases under the traditional McDonnell Douglas standard.

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