5th Circuit - Court Must Consider Unequal Application of Job Standards at Prima Facie Stage
by Michael Fox
The question has been raised in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Costa whether the McDonnell Douglas shifting framework remains viable. See Johnson v. Pepsi-Cola General Bottlers of Iowa, Inc. for a long discussion by Chief Judge Max Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa on that issue.
Even while that debate is ongoing, the 5th Circuit finds occasion yesterday to refine its application of McDonnell Douglas. Johnson v. State of Louisiana. (5th Cir. 11/14/03) [pdf]. The district court had granted summary judgment because none of the plaintiffs had shown that they met the objective qualifications for the positions that they sought. It did not consider that the state had not required that the two applicants who received the position to meet those standards. It argued that was not required to be taken into account at the prima facie stage, and since the applicants could not show they were qualified, thus creating a prima facie case there was no need to go further.
There is a problem with that analysis according to the 5th Circuit, which adopts the reasoning of two cases from the 11th Circuit. The money quote is:
The district court believes it should address the unequal application of the objective requirements at a later stage of the case, but this solution would disallow courts from remedying this type of discrimination. A plaintiff would never reach the later stage of the case if the unequal application were not addressed at the prima facie stage. Allowing an employer to point to objective requirements in arguing that a plaintiff is unqualified, even though the requirements were not applied to other employees, would subvert the intent of Title VII and McDonnell Douglas.
Notwithstanding this flaw in the lower court's reasoning, the Court did uphold the summary judgment for all but one of the plaintiffs.