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Supreme Court: Direct Evidence of Discrimination Not Needed for Liability in Mixed Motive Discharge

Supreme Court: Direct Evidence of Discrimination Not Needed for Liability in Mixed Motive Discharge
  • June 9, 2003

The U. S. Supreme Court ruled today that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not require an individual to show direct evidence of sex discrimination when seeking damages for discriminatory discharge if the employer had a "mixed motive" for the termination. Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa. (.PDF file/248 KB/15 pgs.)

The language of Title VII is clear, the Court said in an unanimous opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. There is no such statutory requirement in Title VII as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991. In a lawsuit seeking damages for discriminatory discharge where the employer has shown a mixed motive for the termination, a plaintiff does not need to show direct evidence of discrimination. Circumstantial evidence of discriminatory motive is sufficient, as has been recognized in a number of the Court's decisions involving burdens of proof in Title VII litigation. There is no additional requirement of direct evidence in a case involving an employer's mixed motives for the conduct at issue, the Court concluded.

This decision settles an important procedural and substantive conflict of opinion among the federal appeals courts, where four of the circuit courts had required the plaintiff to show direct evidence in mixed motive cases. Now, in all jurisdictions, the risk of exposure for employers may be greater, since circumstantial evidence may suffice to find liability. Practically speaking, the effect may be that personnel actions should be given even greater scrutiny to assure they do not expose the employer to an unnecessary or inadvertent risk.

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