January 20, 2021

Applying the three-step burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. followed where the plaintiff lacks direct evidence of discriminatory conduct

Under the McDonnell Douglas Corporation* three-step shifting framework used in evaluating a Title VII discrimination complaints, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination, which then shifts the burden to the employer to come forward with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer provides such a justification, the plaintiff must present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the employer’s explanation is a pretext for intentional discrimination.

In this case the U. S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, assuming that the Plaintiff had established a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination within the meaning of Title VII, found that the record showed that the employer "proffered legitimate reasons for the various employment actions" the Plaintiff challenged as discriminatory and that the Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could find pretext.

Citing Schnabel v. Abramson, 232 F.3d 83, the Circuit Court explained that at the third step of the McDonnell Douglas framework, the court's task is to “examin[e] the entire record,” using a case-specific approach, “to determine whether the plaintiff could satisfy his ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff.” To satisfy this requirement, the plaintiff must produce enough evidence "to support a rational finding not only that the employer’s nondiscriminatory reasons were false but also 'that more likely than not discrimination was the real reason for the' employment actions."

Finding that the overall record showed that:

1. Plaintiff’s subordinates lodged repeated complaints against him over the course of several years;

2. Plaintiff was consistently combative and defiant toward his superiors; and

3. Plaintiff was unwilling to incorporate constructive feedback in response to his performance reviews over that time.

The Circuit Court opined that assuming it could be argued that Plaintiff in this action presented some evidence of pretext, "the record, taken as a whole, does not permit a reasonable trier of fact to find that 'the most likely alternative explanation' for his termination was [unlawful] discrimination."

Noting that a plaintiff is not guaranteed a trial merely because he can satisfy a prima facie case and can adduce “evidence that arguably would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude that [the employer’s] explanation . . . is false”, in this instance Plaintiff failed to demonstrate “weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for its action.”

In the words of the court, "there can be no question that [the Employer] proffered legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for disciplining and ultimately terminating [Plaintiff]" and based on the totality of the record, the Circuit Court of Appeals said it agreed with the federal district court that "a rational jury could not find that retaliation was the but-for cause of the actions taken against [Plaintiff]."

* McDonnell Douglas Corp.v. Green, 411 U.S. 792.

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