IMAGINE this: You're a racial minority and you've been fired from your job. A white worker has taken your place. Your boss says you were laid off because you're incompetent and broke company rules. You suspect the real reason is racial bias, but you can't prove it.
What are your odds of winning a lawsuit against the company?
Until last week, they would have been pretty good. In many courts, all you had to do was show that you're a minority, that you were performing satisfactorily before you were fired, and that another person is now doing your job. It was up to the employer to prove that there were legitimate reasons for firing you.
But on Friday, the United States Supreme Court struck down that method of deciding discrimination cases brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Writing for a five-member majority, Justice Antonin Scalia held that it is not enough for a plaintiff to show that his employer lied about the reasons why he was fired. To win, the court held, a plaintiff must prove that he was fired because of racial discrimination.
"The ruling will affect an extraordinary number of cases - thousands and thousands," says Thomas Henderson of the liberal Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "It makes it much harder for plaintiffs to prove employment discrimination."
Friday's case began in 1984 when Melvin Hicks, a black correctional officer, was fired from his job at St. Mary's Honor Center, a halfway house in Missouri. His employer claimed he was fired for disciplinary reasons. Although a federal district court found that was not true, the court dismissed the case because Mr. Hicks had "not proven that the [firing] was racially rather than personally motivated."
The Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that judgment. The appellate judges said that, under the Supreme Court's 1973 McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green case, a plaintiff should automatically win a Title VII discrimination case if an employer cannot show legitimate reasons for firing him. But the high court held that was a misreading of the "McDonnell test."
The burden of proof must still rest with the employee to show that discrimination occurred, the court ruled. "That the employer's proffered reason is unpersuasive, or even obviously contrived, does not necessarily establish that the plaintiff's proffered reason of race is correct," Scalia wrote.
That reasoning did not convince Justice David Souter, who wrote a strong dissenting opinion joined by Justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and Byron White. "I see no reason why Title VII interpretation should be driven by concern for employers who are too ashamed to be honest in court, at the expense of victims of discrimination who do not happen to have direct evidence of discriminatory intent," Justice Souter wrote.
Souter predicted that the St. Mary's v. Hicks ruling would throw lower courts and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into confusion. It would also deter those who have suffered bias from seeking legal redress, Souter argued.
Conservative lawyers dismissed those concerns. "What this case will do is decrease the number of frivolous claims because now they'll be put to the test," says Mark Levin, director of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation in Washington. "If somebody believes they were treated illegally, I don't see why this would reduce their ability to seek redress."