This past week, a federal district court in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a decision analyzing the pretext stage in a Title VII promotion discrimination case. In McLaughlin v. CSX, 2017 WL 2406718 (D.S.C. June 2, 2017), the court held that the employee had provided enough evidence to survive summary judgment and have her promotion discrimination case decided by a jury.
Legal framework in Title VII promotion discrimination cases
To prove promotion discrimination under Title VII, an employee must first show that:
they are a member of a protected class (for example, a woman, African-American, Hispanic)
they applied for and were qualified for the promotion; and
after they were rejected, the position remained open or was filled by a person with similar qualifications.
If this prima facie case is met, the employer must then state (but need not prove) a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for why it did not select the employee for the promotion.
After the company proffers a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, the employee must then show that the company’s reason was a sham for impermissible discrimination and/or that the explanation is unworthy of credence. See, e.g., Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. 530 U.S. 133, 148 (2000); Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562. 575 (4th Cir. 2015).
How to prove the company’s reason is a pretext for discrimination
Not all federal courts apply the same analysis for proving that the company’s explanation is a pretext for discrimination, but generally pretext can be shown by:
Evidence that you were substantially better qualified than the person selected;
Similarly situated employees of a different gender, race, national origin, etc. were treated better;
Shifting and inconsistent reasons offered by the employer;
Exposing other flaws in the employer’s stated reason (for example, significant deviations from normal procedures in the promotion process)
However, it is not enough to simply nitpick about relatively minor flaws in the selection process.
McLaughlin v. CSX sheds light on the pretext analysis in the Fourth Circuit
The plaintiff in McLaughlin v. CSX, Michelle McLaughlin, alleged that she was denied a promotion that the company awarded instead to a less-qualified male employee.
The company responded that it did not promote McLaughlin because (1) the other candidate was better qualified; and (2) McLaughlin did not have the required technical knowledge.
Comparing qualifications for the job
As to the better qualifications analysis, the court found that in the Fourth Circuit, an employee must show that their qualifications were “demonstrably” or “discernibly” superior to those of the chosen candidate. McLaughlin, 2017 WL 2406718, at *4 (citing Heiko v. Colombo Savings Bank, F.S.B., 434 F.3d 249, 261 (4th Cir. 2006)) (emphasis added).
In McLaughlin, the court noted that it did not have the selection criteria used for the promotion decision to review as part of its analysis. McLaughlin, however, presented the following evidence, which the court deemed sufficient to survive summary judgment:
she had greater seniority with the company than the other candidate;
the company had trained her; and
another employee in the position to which McLaughlin sought to be promoted believed McLaughlin was qualified for the promotion
The court thus determined that a material question of fact exists as to whether McLaughlin was more qualified than the person who received the promotion.
Lack of required technical knowledge
The company also argued that it did not promote McLaughlin because she lacked the necessary technical skills for the job. McLaughlin, 2017 WL 2406718, at *4.
The Court rejected this argument and found that McLaughlin had presented sufficient evidence related to:
she was used as a temporary replacement for the job she to which she sought to be promoted; and
the company had never employed a female in the position McLaughlin sought
The judge ultimately found that this disputed fact about whether the company’s claimed reason for denying her a promotion should be decided by a jury.