In a case of first-impression, the Sixth Circuit held that the burden-shifting framework (commonly referred to as the McDonnell Douglas/Burdine test) used in cases brought under Title VII does not apply to Title VII mixed-motive cases. The Court held that in order to survive a defendant’s summary judgment motion, a Title VII plaintiff asserting a mixed-motive claim must only produce evidence 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. A plaintiff can succeed by showing that a protected characteristic was a motivating factor even if other factors also motivated the adverse action. White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 2008 FED App. 0242P, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 14188 (6th Cir. 2008).
Before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Desert Palace v. Costa in 2003, mixed-motive plaintiffs could only prove their case through direct evidence. In Desert Palace, however, the Supreme Court made it clear that plaintiffs could prove Title VII mixed-motive cases through either direct or circumstantial evidence. Since that case was decided, the federal courts have been inconsistent in how to analyze summary judgment challenges.
Applying the newly-announced standard to the case before them, the Sixth Circuit held that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that race was a motivating factor in his downgraded performance evaluation. Accordingly, the Court held that the company was not entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s mixed-motive claim.