On July 3, 2008, the Sixth Circuit defined a new standard a plaintiff must demonstrate to survive a summary judgment motion in a Title VII mixed-motive case. In White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 533 F.3d 381 (6th Cir. 7/3/08), the court determined that, for a plaintiff to survive a defendant's summary judgment motion, the plaintiff need only produce sufficient evidence 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."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee on the basis of the individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1991, Congress further substantiated this Act by allowing an employer to be held liable for so-called “mixed-motive” claims. Mixed-motive claims occur when both legitimate reasons, such as bad performance, and illegitimate reasons, such as age, motivate an employers’ adverse employment decision to terminate, demote, or fail to promote an employee. According to United States Supreme Court precedent, a plaintiff may attempt to prove a mixed-motive claim by means of direct or circumstantial evidence. However, the Supreme Court has not yet proclaimed a unified standard for all federal courts to use when analyzing a motion for summary judgment in mixed-motive cases. A motion for summary judgment is a critical litigation tool that enables a court to issue a decision, based on the law and facts presented by the moving party, before a full trial has been held. Thus, the standard a court applies to this motion is extremely important because the standard will define how much proof a plaintiff must provide to survive the motion and go to trial.
In White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., the plaintiff, Todd White, brought a claim against his employer, Baxter Healthcare Corporation, alleging he was denied a promotion and received an unfavorable performance evaluation because of his race in violation of Title VII. However, his employer argued that the applicant who received the promotion over the plaintiff possessed better qualifications and the unfavorable evaluation resulted from the plaintiff’s failure to reach a certain sales goal. White originally filed suit in the Eastern District of Michigan, which granted Baxter's motion for summary judgment, and White then appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit noted that it had not yet determined which standard for summary judgment the courts would apply to mixed-motive cases. The court went on to examine the various standards used by other circuits across the nation. For example, the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits use a familiar burden-shifting analysis that allows the plaintiff to introduce basic evidence of discrimination, which the defendant can then overcome with a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. The plaintiff then has the difficult burden of proving the defendant's reason is simply an excuse to avoid liability. However, the Sixth Circuit chose not to apply this standard, instead devising a unique standard where the plaintiff merely needs to show that a protected characteristic played a motivating factor in the employer's decision. The Sixth Circuit admitted that: “the burden of producing some evidence in support of a mixed-motive claim is not onerous and should preclude sending the case to jury only where the record is devoid of evidence that could reasonably be construed to support the plaintiff’s claim.”
The Sixth Circuit’s unique summary judgment standard for mixed-motive cases presents new burdens for employers and new opportunities for employees. For plaintiff-employees, this case will streamline their ability to have a mixed-motive discrimination case heard by a jury. Under this new standard, the plaintiff now merely needs to demonstrate that a protected characteristic such as race or age played a role, no matter how minute, in the employer's decision. Conversely, for defendant-employers, by increasing the burden for summary judgment the new Baxter analysis will obviously exacerbate an employer's ability to receive a grant of summary judgment. In turn, this will likely increase an employer's incentive to settle or, in the alternative, go to trial. While it is too early to predict the magnitude of this decision, plaintiffs will most likely choose to bring any discrimination claim as a mixed-motive claim because of this new standard. Thus, employers are warned to be on the lookout for an increased number of mixed-motive accusations. As always, employers are encouraged to keep detailed documentation regarding an employee's termination and be consistent with disciplinary practices to help minimize potential liability.