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Legitimate and Nondiscriminatory

Published:  December 6, 2017

The phrase “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” is a Defendant (employer)’s best friend in employment discrimination cases.  In cases where there is no direct evidence of discrimination, which is virtually all discrimination cases, the Courts will analyze the case with a ‘burden shifting’ framework.  This process involves three steps.  First, the Plaintiff (employee) must establish a prima facie case.  This is rather easy for the Plaintiff to show. While the exact elements of the prima facie case depend on the nature of the case, the requirement basically means that the Plaintiff must show that 1) they are a member of a protected class and that 2) there is some event or circumstance that raises an inference of discrimination, usually that somebody outside their protected class was treated differently than the Plaintiff.  If the Plaintiff can establish the prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the Defendant to give “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons” for whatever action or circumstance is alleged to have been discriminatory. If the Defendant asserts a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons,” the Plaintiff cannot prevail unless they can offer evidence that the stated “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons” are actually pretext, or in other words, that the reason is a sham to cover up the employer’s true, discriminatory motive.

It is important to emphasize that the different stages of the ‘burden shifting’ framework requires a different levels of proof.  The first two stages require very little, whereas the third stage requires actual evidence of pretext.  The burden at the second stage is “only a burden of production, not a burden of persuasion.” Mesnick v. Gen. Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816 (1st Cir.)  In other words, if there isn’t actual evidence that the stated reason is pretext, a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” is enough to defeat an employment discrimination case.  Furthermore, the “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” does not even have to be a good reason.  It just has to be nondiscriminatory.  Courts “may not sit as super personnel departments, assessing the merits – or even the rationality – of employer’s nondiscriminatory business decisions.” Mesnick.  The reason doesn’t have to be wise or fair.  In fact, you don’t need to have a reason at all…. just as long as there isn’t a discriminatory reason.

A recent First Circuit case highlighted this concept.  In Cherkaoui v. City of Quincy, No. 16-2304 (1st Cir., December 4, 2017), a public school teacher filed a lawsuit claiming that the city had discriminated against her on the basis of religion, disability and retaliation.  In addition to other allegations, the Plaintiff alleged that she was forced to teach under unreasonable conditions, and that this was motivated by discrimination.  In truth, many of the alleged conditions are certainly challenging.  Among other complaints, the teacher alleged that she did not have an assigned classroom space, had very large number of students in single classes, had classes with mixtures of significantly large ranges of age, grade and language fluency, was assigned to work at different schools in the same day, was asked to teach subjects she was not familiar with, and did not receive her teaching assignment until a few days before the new year.  These conditions are sub-optimal to say the least. However, the Court ruled that these conditions were not discriminatory.  Rather, all of these circumstances were based on actual budget, staffing and facility constraints. The Plaintiff was not able to provide any evidence that these reasons were not the real reasons for the teaching conditions, much less that the real reason was actually discriminatory.

In another recent Superior Court case, D’Egidio v. Beth Israel Deaconess Med. Ctr., Inc., No. 2016-1260-F (Mass. Super. Ct., Nov. 13. 2017), the Court ruled that a former employee’s termination was nondiscriminatory, despite occurring about a week before his sixty-fifth birthday.  Although the timing of the termination was unfortunate for the Plaintiff, the Defendant was able to provide legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions.  Specifically, the Defendant showed that it had restructured the department due to budget constraints, and the Plaintiff’s former position was no longer needed. Again, the Plaintiff was not able to provide any evidence that these reasons were not the real reasons for the action, much less that the real reason was actually discriminatory.

The reality is that very few people are completely satisfied with their working conditions. Many people feel that they are asked to do too much with too little.  Some even find themselves out of work through little to no fault of their own.  However, this alone cannot sustain a discrimination case unless the circumstances are actually motivated by discriminatory animus based on a protected class.  Employers frequently have to make difficult decisions, which may upset their employees.  However, employers should remember that they have the right to make these difficult decisions, unless they are motivated by an unlawful purpose.

If you have any questions about employee discrimination or any of the cases referenced above, please contact the attorneys at Royal, P.C.

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