April 17, 2019

Establishing a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination triggers the McDonnell Douglas Corp. protocols used to evaluate employee's claims

In this appeal the United States Circuit Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, considered the employee's [Plaintiff] challenge to a federal district court's summarily dismissing his Title VII  complaint  "in the entirety" on the motion of his former employer [Defendant] and the lower court's dismissal of his New York City Human Rights Law"* allegations. Essentially Plaintiff alleged that Defendant had unlawfully discrimination against him on the basis of his race, ethnicity, or national origin in violation of Title VII.

The Circuit Court observed that summary judgment must be granted to the moving party “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials [in] the files, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The court then explained that a petitioner's federal law unlawful discrimination claims are to be analyzed under the three-step McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, in which the employee must initially present a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination.**

By establishing a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination, the employee shifts the burden of going forward to the employer, requiring the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions.

In the event the employer presents a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions, the burden of going forward then shifts back to the employee, who must now show that the employer’s explanation or justification for its action is merely a "pretext" in order for the individual to go forward with his or her claim of unlawful discrimination.

In this action the federal district court held that although the Plaintiff satisfied the requirements of articulating a prima facie case of unlawful employment discrimination, the Defendant, citing the Plaintiff's poor work performance, had set out a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis for its dismissing Plaintiff from his position. The district court then rejected Plaintiff's contention that the Defendant's allegation of "poor work performance"  as its justification for Plaintiff's termination was "mere pretext" for its action.

Thus, in the words of the Circuit Court, the central issue on appeal is were the reasons advanced by the Defendant as justification for its action "pretext." The Circuit Court decided that the Plaintiff had, in fact, demonstrated the existence of a triable issue of fact as to whether Defendants' proffered reason for his dismissal was mere pretext.

The court observed that in both Plaintiff's federal district court complaint and in an exhibit to his complaint to the New York State Division of Human (sic), Plaintiff asserted that he had overheard one of the named Defendants state during a phone to another party that she “know[s] how to terminate this stupid [referring to Plaintiff's nationality] guy” and submitted other evidence of discriminatory animus towards him, including additional comments made by said Defendant to others.

In reviewing a district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo, and "construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party," here the Plaintiff, and drawing all reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor,” the Circuit Court concluded that "it [was] for the jury to determine whether to credit Plaintiff's representation, and vacated both of the federal district court’s rulings.

The Circuit Court then remanded the matter to the federal district court "for further proceedings consistent with this order."

* The Circuit Court noted that with respect to Plaintiff's New York City Human Rights Law claim, which it considered separately, it was “construing [its] provisions broadly in favor of discrimination plaintiffs, to the extent that such a construction is reasonably possible", citing Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux N. Am., Inc., 715 F.3d 102.