Pretext is a commonsense inquiry: did the employer fire the employee for the stated reason or not? This requires a court to ask whether the plaintiff has produced evidence that casts doubt on the employer’s explanation, and, if so, how strong it is. One can distill the inquiry into a number of component parts, and it can be useful to do so. But that should not cause one to lose sight of the fact that at bottom the question is always whether the employer made up its stated reason to conceal intentional discrimination.
These are the words of the 6th Circuit from earlier this week in Chen v. Dow Chemical [PDF], a race discrimination and retaliation case. In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously non-defined obscenity as, “I know it when I see it.” In employment litigation we often get caught up in formal burdens of proof, legitimate non-discriminatory reasons, pretext, and direct evidence. Yet, discrimination cases are usually decided with the same informality laid out by Justice Stewart. If an employment decision looks discriminatory, then it probably is. The challenge for employers is to avoid the appearance of a made-up reason.
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