New 11th Circuit Decision Changes the Way Some Discrimination Cases Will Be Decided in Georgia

An important new decision handed down last month by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stands to be a “game changer” for some employment discrimination cases that will be decided by federal courts in Georgia. The appeals court’s rejection of the old methodology for deciding if an employer had violated the law now means that employees could potentially have an easier time getting past the summary judgment phase of a case, making it to trial, and winning. Under the new rule, in cases in which the employer had both legal and illegal motivations for acting, all the employee must show to succeed is that the employer took an adverse employment action and that the employee’s membership in a protected class was a motivating factor in the action.

The case that led to this ruling was Quigg v. Thomas County School District. The employee, Linda Quigg, was the superintendent of public schools in Thomas County, Georgia, from 2007-11. After the local school board voted 5-2 not to renew her contract in 2011, Quigg launched a legal action, asserting that she was the victim of sex discrimination and retaliation. Quigg offered evidence that, during her tenure, some board members made statements that indicated an anti-female gender bias. Additionally, however, the board had evidence that some members legitimately disapproved of Quigg’s on-the-job performance, and some of Quigg’s evaluations indicated legitimate performance-based concerns.

The school board asked the trial court to issue a summary judgment in its favor, which Quigg opposed. The trial court analyzed those arguments under the standard created by a 1973 US Supreme Court case, McDonnell Douglas v. Green. Under that standard, the employee alleging discrimination must first show that she has a discrimination case generally. This means showing that she was a member of a protected class, that she was qualified for her job, and that she suffered some adverse employment action. If she presented such a case, the McDonnell Douglas standard required the employer to present a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. If the employer did so, the employee had the obligation to prove that the non-discriminatory reason stated by the employer was merely a ruse meant to cover up its true (and discriminatory) reasons. If the employee could not debunk the employer’s stated, legitimate reason as only a pretext for discrimination, she lost.

In some cases, though, the reasons for an adverse emploment action are numerous. Sometimes the employer acts on a mixture of legitimate reasons and discriminatory bases. The 11th Circuit concluded that, for these types of cases, using the McDonnell Douglas framework was the wrong way to decide an outcome. The McDonnell Douglas analysis was fundamentally incompatible with a case like Quigg’s because it was based upon the notion of “a single, ‘true reason’ for an adverse action.” Cases like Quigg’s involved several, as opposed to one, true reasons for the action that befell the employee.

The 11th Circuit announced that it was adopting a framework previously created in 2008 by the Sixth Circuit in the case of White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp. The Sixth Circuit ruling, which applies to employers and employees in Tennessee (and three other states), stated that, in order to get past an employer’s motion for summary judgment, the employee only needed to establish that the employer took an adverse action and that the employee’s membership in a protected group “was a motivating factor” in the action.

This new decision by the 11th Circuit is significantly helpful to employees who believe that they have been the victims of illegal discrimination. It also offers a clear warning sign to Georgia employers that they will have to view employees’ discrimination claims differently in the future. For skillful advice and representation, contact the diligent Georgia employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have many years of experience, are wholly up-to-date on this area of the law, and are ready to help you with your case, whether you are an employee or employer.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

11th Circuit: Attacking Employer’s Business Judgment Not Enough to Show Pretext in Discrimination Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 25, 2015

Alleged Recruiting Violations Doom Georgia High School Football Coach’s Racial Discrimination Suit, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 11, 2015

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