Just Give Me a Reason: Court Clarifies Burden-Shifting Standards


With apologies to P!nk (and her hit, “Just Give Me a Reason”), a new court decision gives new meaning to the phrase. 

Before we get to that, longtime readers of the blog will no doubt be familiar with the burden-shifting analysis that courts use to analyze discrimination cases. 

First, the employee must meet a “prima facie” case; in essence, for items that show a possiblity of discrimination. Next, the employer must put forth (not prove) a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision at issue.  If that happens, then the employee must prove that the reason is a pretext, or coverup for the real reason: discrimination. 

In Connecticut, discrimination cases typically follow federal law.  A new Connecticut Appellate Court case (officially released on June 18, 2013), in Callender v. Reflexite Corp. has attempted to clarify one lingering issue relating to a non-discriminatory reason.

Suppose an employer provides three reasons for the business decision. Does the employer need to provide support for all three? Or is a plaintiff’s failure to show that one of the reasons is false sufficient to defeat a discrimination case?

In Callender, the plaintiff alleged that the employer proffered three reasons for discharging the plaintiff (the elimination of the plaintiff’s position, the plaintiff’s inability to work, and the lack of light dutywork available), but that the lower court looked only at the first reason advanced by the defendant and failed to consider all three reasons.

The defendant argued that the court properly determined that it was undisputed that the ‘‘the plaintiff’s employment was terminated only after a company-wide restructuring resulted in the elimination of her position” and that the plaintiff had acknowledged that fact too. 

The court said that was enough.  It was “beyond dispute” that there existed a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the defendant to have terminated the plaintiff’s employment—her position was being eliminated:

Although the plaintiff contends that the court was required to look beyond this reason and examinethe additional reasons or explanations given by the defendant for terminating the plaintiff’s employment, we conclude that it suffices that the defendant set forth one legitimate nondiscriminatory reason and that the court was not required to examine every reason or explanation set forth by the defendant as long as it met its burden of producing one legitimate reason.

For employers, this decision provides some incentive to document all the reasons for an employee’s termination — not just the “best” reason. If the court’s logic is to be followed, then the employer would need only provide undisputed support for at least one of those reasons at summary judgment. 

The case rests on several other grounds as well, including addressing the issue of whether an employer’s selection of an age-limit for a voluntarily early retirement plan is proper as well. 

Just Give me a Reason (Live)

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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