Seyfarth Synopsis. The Eleventh Circuit clarifies the framework in mixed-motive cases. Although damages are limited, a plaintiff can establish a mixed-motive claim by showing a protected characteristic was a motivating factor for an adverse employment action.

Historically, district courts in the Eleventh Circuit were loath to depart from the traditional McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework in all but the most egregious employment discrimination cases involving allegations of direct evidence. That preference and the exclusivity of McDonnell Douglas is, however, showing signs of erosion.

In two recent decisions, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment and fashioned a new framework for Title VII causation determinations. These decisions suggest that summary judgment will be more difficult to obtain in mixed-motive employment discrimination cases under a 1991 amendment to Title VII: 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m). The provision allows an employee to establish an unlawful employment practice by demonstrating that a protected characteristic “was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated that practice.”

The Eleventh Circuit first hinted that employees could proceed under the more lenient “motivating factor” causation standard in Chavez v. Credit Nation Auto Sales, LLC. That case involved alleged sex discrimination against a transgender auto mechanic. The company owner allegedly made comments that he was “very nervous” that the mechanic’s gender transition could “negatively impact his business.” The company owner disciplined the mechanic for various performance issues, and ultimately fired her when he found her asleep at work.

Chavez sued and the district court granted summary judgment based on the company’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for her termination, namely falling asleep on the job. The circuit court reversed and indicated that an employer’s presenting a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason is not a complete defense to liability. The circuit court reasoned that an employee could still recover declaratory relief and attorneys’ fees, though not damages, by establishing that discrimination based on a protected characteristic was a “motivating factor” for the adverse employment action.

The full impact of Chavez was not entirely clear. The decision was unpublished, and there were some signs that the company owner deviated from the written disciplinary system to immediately terminate the mechanic.

But the Eleventh Circuit’s recent decision in Quigg v. Thomas County School District, issued just over a month after Chavez, clarified that alternatives to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework were not as narrowly available as past cases suggested.

Quigg involved an employee who claimed that the school district discriminated against her based on her sex and gender by failing to renew her employment contract. The school district countered that the employee had performance issues and violated the school district’s ethics policies.

The district court granted summary judgment on all claims using the traditional McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. The district court found that the school district provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for her termination and that the employee’s evidence was insufficient to establish that her performance issues were mentioned only as a pretext for discrimination.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that the McDonnell Douglas framework did not apply in mixed-motive cases. Rather, an employee could survive summary judgment by demonstrating that the protected characteristic was a motivating factor, even though the school district had legitimate issues with the employee’s job performance. The circuit court held that, rather than examine the case under McDonnell Douglas, the proper framework on summary judgment should be to “ask only whether a plaintiff offered 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.” The decision brings the Eleventh Circuit in line with the majority of other circuits that addressed the issue, including the Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits. To date, only the Eighth Circuit persists in applying McDonnell Douglas to mixed-motive claims based on circumstantial evidence.

Significantly, an employer can still reduce the damages available to the employee by establishing that it would have made the same decision “in the absence of the impermissible motivating factor.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(2)(B). This partial defense allows an employer to escape liability for actual damages and the potential for reinstatement but leaves a litigant’s ability to request declaratory relief and fees intact.

Given the limited nature of relief in mixed-motive cases, time will tell whether mixed-motive claims will begin to increase in the Eleventh Circuit or if McDonnell Douglas will continue to apply as the prevailing framework.

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