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What the ‘McDonnell Douglas Framework’ Is and What It Means to Your Workplace Discrimination Case in New Jersey

If you are familiar with commercial airplanes, then you probably know the name “McDonnell Douglas” from its many well-known jets, including the DC 10. For people, such as an experienced New Jersey employment attorney, who are knowledgeable about discrimination law, the name “McDonnell Douglas” is familiar for a different reason. That’s because, in a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case bearing the company’s name, the high court created an important framework that victims of workplace discrimination, including those in New Jersey, still use today in their lawsuits.

The “McDonnell Douglas framework,” as it is called, comes in three parts. The first hurdle involves you, as the worker who was harmed by discrimination, establishing a “prima facie case” of discrimination.

A prima facie case of discrimination involves showing that you were a member of a protected class (like age, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.), that you were qualified for the job you held, and that you suffered an adverse employment action (such as demotion, termination, reduction in hours, etc.) because of your membership in that protected class.

Once you do that, then the burden shifts from you to your employer. Your employer has to show that it took action against you due to legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons. If it does that, then the burden shifts once again. You can still succeed if you can show that the employer’s stated reasons were actually mere pretexts and that the real reason motivating that action against you was actually a discriminatory one.

One of the places where this framework matters a great deal is when your employer has asked the trial court to throw out your case on summary judgment, which means your case is over without ever making it to trial.

A recent federal case from here in New Jersey makes for a good real-life example of how this framework analysis can play out successfully for an employee. The employee, S. A.-N., was a Black woman who was born in West Africa. From 2002-2017, she worked for a chain of seafood restaurants. In 2017, the restaurant chain fired the woman, so she sued for race and gender discrimination. The employer, in turn, moved for summary judgment, and the court applied the McDonnell Douglas framework.

Supervisor’s biased comments were key to the worker’s prima facie case

The employee, the court concluded, made out a prima facie case of discrimination. She had evidence that she was a Black immigrant woman working as a restaurant server, had 15 years of experience in that role with her employer and was fired in 2017.

One of the biggest pieces in support of the server’s prima facie case was her assertion that a supervisory employee made racist comments, such as commenting that Black people “like their fish ‘n chips,” ”like their fried food,” “like to take advantage of the system,” and “lie.” The server’s allegations also included comments from the supervisor like “too many immigrants coming in”; and “[a]ll immigrants have to go back to where they come from because they are taking our jobs.”

That was enough to shift the burden to the employer. The employer contended that it terminated the server for violating the company’s policies, such as eating food from the kitchen without paying for it, which came after multiple “write ups” (including two “Final Written Warnings”) about taking food without ringing it up or paying for it.

That put the burden back on the server. She, in turn, asserted that many of her “write ups” for not paying for food involved situations where she actually did pay for the food. Additionally, she argued that the dish that triggered her termination was something she never requested at all and was given to her in error.

These assertions, according to the court, were sufficient such that a jury could reasonably find that the employer’s stated reasons for the termination were actually just a pretext and that illegal discrimination had occurred. This meant the employer was not entitled to summary judgment and the server was entitled to take her case to trial.

Sometimes, a discrimination case is easy. Maybe the worker has a video of her supervisor saying out loud, “I am firing her because she is a pregnant woman!” The vast majority of discrimination and harassment cases aren’t like that, of course. They require obtaining lots of evidence and piecing it together correctly to make a strong circumstantial case that clears multiple evidentiary hurdles. For that kind of case, you need the knowledge and skill of an experienced legal advocate. Count on the experienced race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to provide you with that kind of representation. Our team offers clients advocates with many years of experience in successfully handling a full spectrum of discrimination and harassment cases. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation to discuss how to put the power of this office to work for you.

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