Employers in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama should adjust their analysis of discrimination claims in light of a recent court decision that changes the legal standard for employers seeking early dismissal of discrimination cases. Previously, employee claims based on circumstantial evidence were evaluated under a burden-shifting framework. An employer could win summary judgment before trial by showing that a) it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for taking action against an employee and b) the employee did not prove that reason was a pretext for the real reason, discrimination. However, in Quigg v. Thomas, et al., No. 14-14530 (Feb. 22, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit (which covers Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) said that was the wrong framework for analyzing a claim where the employee alleges the employer’s motives were mixed. If the employee claims that the employer had both lawful and discriminatory motives for the action, the employee then “need only produce evidence sufficient to convince a jury that: (1) the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff; and (2) [a protected characteristic] was a motivating factor for the defendant’s adverse employment action.” (Emphasis added).
Prior to Quigg, the Eleventh Circuit focused on the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework that required the employer to put forth its legitimate reason for the adverse action and required the employee to show that the employer’s proferred reason was false or “pretextual.” This was a difficult burden for plaintiffs to meet. Now, as a result of Quigg, employees who claim there were both lawful and unlawful motives no longer are required to prove their employer’s proffered reason for the adverse action being challenged is false. Instead, employees need only provide evidence sufficient to show that discrimination was a reason (among others, including legitimate reasons) for the adverse action.
Quigg served as superintendent of a school district. The School Board in her district appointed superintendents for term contracts, subject to renewal by a majority vote among the seven-member board. After several years of generally satisfactory or above satisfactory reviews (though some Board members noted her failure to meet expectations), just prior to her contract being up for renewal, some of the Board members suggested that Quigg should reorganize her administration and hire a male assistant superintendent. Quigg refused to do so, and the Board then voted 5 to 2 against renewing her contract.
Quigg filed a sex discrimination claim in the Middle District of Georgia, which was dismissed. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal, observing that discriminatory input may have factored in the process and that “[v]arious statements made by School Board members… indicate that sex or gender-based bias was a motivating factor in their votes against her.” The Court also noted that the Board members’ statements indicated that “they preferred men—or, at the least, individuals with masculine characteristics—for positions within the office of the superintendent.” Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit permitted Quigg’s sex discrimination claim under Title VII to proceed to trial.
Practical Consequences for Employers
In light of Quigg, plaintiffs will likely more often assert mixed-motive theories of discrimination. Evidence of discriminatory remarks that would not have been sufficient under the prior law may now be enough for an employee’s claim to reach a jury. Now, more than ever, employers must ensure they are taking ample preventative measures, including comprehensive anti-discrimination policies and thorough training, to avoid legal claims of discrimination.