The Mixed Motive Instruction in Employment Discrimination Cases: What Employers Need to Know
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Sherwyn, David; Carvell, Steven; Baumgarten, Joseph
In litigation regarding employment discrimination, the burden of establishing proof has continued to shift. As a result, employers and legal counsel need to be aware of the status of what they and human resources professionals should consider when an employee alleges that the employer has violated federal discrimination statutes. The original standard of proof required the plaintiff to establish that the employer discriminated against that person. Many cases still involve that approach, giving the plaintiff the burden of creating a prima facie case. However, another line of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court added an alternative method for addressing discrimination litigation, known as the mixed motive approach. The two-prong mixed motive case requires the employee to demonstrate that a protected characteristic (e.g., race, sex, national origin) was a substantial factor in an employer’s adverse action. If that is established, the employer then has the burden of proving that the decision would have been made in any event, regardless of the employee’s protected characteristic. As a practical matter, employers facing litigation of this type must consider whether and how to defend such a case. Even a “win” can be expensive, because in cases where there is a divided decision, the employer must pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees and court costs, as well as its own. Moreover, since the Civil Rights Act of 1991 places discrimination cases in front of a jury, a divided decision is seemingly more likely. Although that presumably gives both sides a win, it still means a large expense for the employer.
employment discrimination; litigation; burden of proof; human resources management
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