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How does a court determine whether an employee suffers discrimination?

In some cases an employee may put forth direct evidence that he or she suffered discrimination in the workplace. However, most employers do not come right out and state: "We fired you or demoted you or refused to promote you because of your race or sex." In many disputed cases, the employee contends that the reason he or she was discharged was a discriminatory reason, while the employer contends that the reason was because the employee was a bad employee. The law must come up with some way to analyze the actual reason for the adverse employment action suffered by the employee.

Rather, employees must put forth circumstantial evidence of discrimination. The common method of analyzing such cases comes from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in McDonnell Douglas v. Green (1973)—called the McDonnell Douglas framework. The three-part framework consists of (1) the employee must establish a prima facie, or basic, case of employment discrimination; (2) the employer must then come back with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action; and (3) the employee must then show that the employer's stated reasons for its actions were pretexual or false.

Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, how does an employee establish a prima facie case of discrimination?

Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, the employee has the initial burden (called a burden of production) to show that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the employee suffered discrimination. The employee must show the following:

(1) The employee was in a protected class;

(2) The employee was qualified for the job or was meeting the legitimate business expectations of the job;

(3) The employee suffered an adverse employment action; and

(4) The employer treated the employee worse than similarly-situated individuals outside the employee's protected class.

What was the McDonnell Douglas case about?

In McDonnell Douglas v. Green (1973) a large manufacturing company (McDonnell Douglas) laid off much of its workforce, including Percy Green, an African-American civil rights activist. During the layoff period, Green had protested what he believed to be discriminatory hiring practices of his employer by helping to engage in a stall-in, where protestors would take their cars and then stall them on the road leading into the employer's business.

McDonnell Douglas then began a rehiring of many workers. Green applied for reinstatement but was denied. He sued, alleging that McDonnell Douglas failed to rehire him because of his civil rights activism and his race. The lower courts rejected his claim. However, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the lower courts failed to give him a chance to prove that the company's reasons for not rehiring him—participation in illegal acts of disruption—were pretextual or false. The importance of the case is the allocation of proof that the Court established for Title VII plaintiffs and defendants.

What happened to Percy Green after McDonnell Douglas v. Green?

Green eventually lost his case on remand because the federal trial court ruled that the evidence showed that Green was rejected for hire not because of his race but because of his illegal activities. He earned a B.A. from St. Louis University and a master's from Washington University. He continued to work as an activist and has been arrested more than 100 times in protests.

What is a protected class?

A protected class refers to groups of people who are protected from discrimination. Protected classes include such terms as race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, and disability. This is often the easiest prong to establish under the McDonnell Douglas test. However, sometimes courts rule that people do not fit within a protected class. For example, several courts have ruled that transsexuals are not a protected class under Title VII because under Title VII sex discrimination means it is "unlawful to discriminate against women because they are women and men because they are men."

The complainant in a Title VII trial must carry the initial burden under the statute of establishing a prima facie case of racial discrimination. This may be done by showing (i) that he belongs to a racial minority; (ii) that he applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants; (iii) that, despite his qualifications, he was rejected; and (iv) that, after his rejection, the position remained open and the employer continued to seek applicants from persons of complainant's qualifications.

It is illegal to discriminate against any

It is illegal to discriminate against any "protected class," of people, including those of a different race, religion, age, national origin, sex, or disability (iStock).

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