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Surviving Summary Judgment in Employment Discrimination Cases

If your employment discrimination case is not settled or mediated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC), you may receive the right to bring suit against your employer, usually in federal court. Successfully doing so, however, is not easy. The burden of proof to survive a motion for summary judgment can be extremely steep.

McDonnell Douglas and The Shifting Framework

The landmark case for summary judgment is McDonnell Douglas v. Green (1973). In this employment discrimination case, the Supreme Court put forth its “burden-shifting” analysis, designed to be more fair to both employer and employee when alleged discrimination is at issue. The plaintiff must show that (1) a prima facie case of employment discrimination exists—in other words, that the plaintiff was qualified for the job in question, was a member of a protected class (such as women, LGBTQ people, resident aliens, and the like), and suffered an adverse employment action.

The burden then shifts to the employer to show that (2) the adverse action was justifiable. For example, in the case of alleged age discrimination, an employer might try to show that age or lack thereof is a bona fide occupational qualification. In other words, an employer may try to show that safety might be compromised if an elderly person is permitted to keep the job in question. If this is done, the employee must present evidence to show (3) why the action is not justifiable. Generally, if the employee can meet (1) and the employer fails to meet (2), or if the employee can meet (1) and (3), they will be able to stave off summary judgment.

Summary Judgment in Employment Discrimination Cases: Judicial Precedent

While the law is always evolving, there have been recent precedents that have clarified what exactly is required to avoid summary judgment in most courts. For example, in Bulwer v. Mt Auburn Hospital (2016), the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that to survive summary judgment, a plaintiff must simply show that the reason for their discharge or other adverse employment action was untrue—rather than the shifting burden tests illustrated in federal law. This is a Massachusetts ruling, but it is still instructive to note the trend of state courts shying away from what can be a complex process. The opinion in Bulwer comes out fairly strongly in favor of allowing more questions of burden of proof to be answered by a jury, rather than a judge.

Another notable case is from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. This case deals with “indirect” vs. “direct” evidence, which can often wind up being used against an employee. Often, fact finders may give more weight to ‘direct’ evidence of discrimination (or lack thereof) even if a significant web of circumstantial evidence may point strongly toward a finding that discrimination occurred. The decision in Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc. (2016) underscores the necessity for a judge to evaluate all the evidence by the same standards, rather than assigning more weight to “direct” evidence.

Get Help From a Charleston, SC Employment Discrimination Lawyer

While employment discrimination cases are not binding in South Carolina, precedent is nonetheless out there that can illustrate exactly what burden you have to meet to avoid summary judgment on your employment discrimination claim. If you need further assistance in preparing for trial or have questions you need answered, an experienced employment discrimination attorney can be of assistance.

Contact Hitchcock & Potts today for a consultation with A. Christopher Potts and his team of experienced Charleston, SC employment discrimination lawyers.

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