HIGHLIGHTS:

  • In Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has clarified its standard for evaluating evidence in employment discrimination cases.
  • Whether a "convincing mosaic" of "direct" or "indirect" evidence exists in the record is not the appropriate legal standard to be applied by district courts in deciding summary judgment motions directed to employment discrimination claims. Further, courts should no longer distinguish between "direct" and "indirect" evidence.

In Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc.1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit clarified its standard for evaluating evidence in employment discrimination cases and rejected prior decisions to the extent they required a plaintiff to establish a "convincing mosaic" of discrimination based on "direct" (i.e., admissions of culpability or a "smoking gun") or "indirect" (i.e., suspicious circumstances that might allow an inference of discrimination) evidence.

Ortiz worked as a freight broker for Werner. He was discharged in 2012 after seven years of employment for falsifying business records. Ortiz sued Werner under 42 U.S.C. §1981 and the Illinois Human Rights Act, 775 ILCS 5/101 et seq., claiming discrimination based on his Mexican ethnicity and a hostile work environment.

The district court granted summary judgment to Werner. Ortiz's hostile work environment claim was dismissed for his failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and that ruling was not challenged on appeal. In evaluating Ortiz's discrimination claim, the district court analyzed the evidence under "direct" and "indirect" methods to determine if he had shown the existence of a "convincing mosaic" of discrimination. The district court concluded that Ortiz failed to present such a "convincing mosaic" under the direct method because alleged racial slurs by Werner's managers were not connected with his discharge. The court also ruled there was not enough of a "mosaic" under the indirect method because Ortiz, through his actions, did not meet Werner's performance expectations.

According to the Seventh Circuit, prior efforts to "shoehorn" evidence into two methods, as well as district courts' insistence that either method be implemented by searching for a "convincing mosaic" of discrimination, has "complicated and sidetracked employment-discrimination litigation for many years." These analyses have detracted attention from the only question that mattered in the case at hand: "Whether a reasonable juror could conclude that Ortiz would have kept his job if he had a different ethnicity, and everything else had remained the same."

The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the case for trial, holding that the district court erred in treating the "direct" and "indirect" methods as having their own elements and rules. The opinion also clarified that "convincing mosaic" is not a legal test. In doing so, the Seventh Circuit overruled a series of decisions over the past 20 years to the extent that they relied on the existence of a "convincing mosaic" of discrimination as a governing legal standard or used the "direct" and "indirect" framework. Future rulings by a district court that require a plaintiff to meet such a standard are subject to summary reversal.

Going forward, the Seventh Circuit instructs district courts to stop separating "direct" evidence from "indirect" evidence and proceeding as if these types of evidence are subject to different legal standards. "Evidence is evidence. Relevant evidence must be considered and irrelevant evidence disregarded, but no evidence should be treated differently because it can be labeled 'direct' or 'indirect.'" In other words, all evidence "belongs in a single pile and must be evaluated as a whole."

The Ortiz decision did not unwind or alter the burden-shifting framework created by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green and its progeny. However, the Seventh Circuit made clear that district courts must evaluate evidence under the clarified standard in future employment discrimination cases. In the context of summary judgment motions, the controlling issue will simply be whether the record "would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the plaintiff's race, ethnicity, sex, religion, or other proscribed factor caused" the adverse employment action.