Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

McDonnell Douglas Bites the Dust in Tennessee

Yesterday I wrote about Texas' own little corner of the workers' comp world, today it is the Volunteer State's turn to take the spotlight for its unique view of an element of employment law. In Gossett v. Tractor Supply Co. (Tenn. 9/20/10) a sharply divided Supreme Court dumped one of the long time stalwart's of employment discrimination and retaliation, the McDonnell Douglas shifting burden of proof for evaluating a plaintiff's claim.

The Cour rather unceremoniously concluded,
we hold that the McDonnell Douglas framework is inapplicable at the summary judgment stage because it is incompatible with Tennessee summary judgment jurisprudence.
Actually the headline to this post is technically inaccurate, since the Court went on to say
 Furthermore, when applied at the summary judgment stage, the shifting burdens of the McDonnell Douglas framework obfuscate the trial court's summary judgment analysis. The McDonnell Douglas framework "is intended to progressively sharpen the inquiry into the elusive factual question of intentional discrimination" or retaliation. Burdine, 450 U.S. at 254 n.8. Although such inquiry is particularly appropriate at trial, it is ill-suited for the purpose of determining whether "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact."
Most employment law practitioners outside Tennessee state court will be somewhat surprised with that view, since most of the jurisprudence is that once a case actually gets to trial, the McDonnell Douglass framework is particularly inappropriate.

Although it might be found on a closer reading of the opinion, what seems to be missing from the majority's opinion is a basic understanding of what the McDonnell Douglas framework was intended to do. The United States Supreme Court that created it was faced with how does an employee prove intentional discrimination based on a protective category, when it is highly unlikely that employers will admit to such.

One way they concluded was to set up a prima facie case of factors that do not conclusively prove discrimination, but if totally unrebutted, would be sufficient to permit an inference of discrimination to be drawn. They placed the burden of establishing the prima facie case on the plaintiff, allowing them to create an inference of discrimination.  However, when the employer articulates a legitimate business reason that would explain the facts that were used to establish the prima facie case.  When that happens the burden then reverts to plaintiff to show that the real reason for the discrimination was their membership in a protected class.

Now clearly the formulation has gotten a little more complicated and some well known federal judges, most notably Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit, are clearly not fans, but to merely toss it out without even making it clear that they understood how it came to be, seems somewhat odd.

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I wonder if the Tennessee Supreme Court's opinion goes far enough to cost the state agency its status as a FEPA. While this opinion does not change the text of the state law, it seems to diminish rather than enhance the protections of the Tennessee state anti-discrimination laws.
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