The contents of a complaint trump strict application of a legal test for determining who has the burden of proof, a federal appeals court made clear this week.
An African American employee can proceed with her employment discrimination complaint even though she did not adequately plead that she established a prima facie case of discrimination, the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled July 2.
Under the McDonnell-Douglas test, the plaintiff has to plead a prima facie case, at which point the buren shifts to the employer to show that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged employment decision, for example, a discharge. If it can make this showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the asserted reason was actually a pretext for discrimination, that is, not the real reason.
But the appeals court said in this case that the burden-shifting framework does not apply at the pleading stage. In addition, it pointed out, the complaint detailed several specific events in each of those employment-action categories where Keys alleges she was treated differently than her Caucasian management counterparts.
It identified the key supervisors and other relevant persons by race and either name or company title; and it alleged that Keys and other African Americans received specific adverse employment actions notwithstanding satisfactory employment performances.
Therefore, the appeals court returned the case to the lower court for further proceedings.