What's a Prima Facie Case of Discrimination Under Title VII?

To move your Title VII case forward, you must have enough evidence to allow a judge or jury to infer that discrimination took place.

"Prima facie" is a Latin term that means "on its face" or "at first glance." In court, a litigant makes a prima facie case by presenting evidence that, if believed by the judge or jury, would be sufficient to support the allegations in the lawsuit.

An employee who brings a discrimination case under Title VII must have enough evidence to make a prima facie case of discrimination. In other words, the employee's evidence must be enough to allow a judge or jury to infer that discrimination took place. Once the employee has met this burden of proof, the employer must present evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory motive for the employment decision at issue. The employee then has an opportunity to challenge the employer's evidence by showing that the reasons give for the decision were a pretext for discrimination.

Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Title VII also prohibits retaliation against employees who exercise their rights under the law or participate in an investigation of a discrimination or harassment claim.

Making a Prima Facie Case Under Title VII

Courts have come up with a four-part test that employees must meet to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII. If an employee can present evidence of each element, the employer will then have to present evidence that its decision was not discriminatory. If an employee can't make a prima facie case, the employer can ask the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

The elements of a prima facie discrimination case are:

  1. The employee is in a protected class (based on race, gender, and so on).
  2. The employee was qualified for the position. For example, an applicant who wasn't hired would have to show that he met the requirements for the job; an employee who was fired would have to show that she was performing the job adequately and meeting the employer's expectations.
  3. The employee was rejected for the position -- in other words, the applicants was not hired, or the employee was not promoted or was fired.
  4. An employee outside of the protected class was selected for the position, or the employer continued to look for candidates. For example, an employee who claims she was not promoted because she was a women could show that a man was promoted instead, or that the company continued to look for internal candidates after rejecting her.

The Employer's Burden

Once the employee has made a prima facie case, the employer must present some evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory motive for the challenged action or decision. For example, if the employee claims that he was fired because he is African American, the employer might present evidence that the employee was actually fired for poor performance or misconduct. Or, if an applicant claims she was not hired because she is a woman, the employer might present evidence that the applicant wasn't qualified for the job, and that it has hired other women for the same position.

The Employee's Rebuttal: Pretext

Once the employer presents its evidence, the employee has an opportunity to prove that it's a pretext -- in other words, that the employer's explanation is inaccurate, and is masking the employer's true discriminatory motive. For instance, if an employer claims that an employee was fired for misconduct, the employee might come forward with evidence that other employees who committed the same offense were not fired, that the employee did not actually commit misconduct, or that the employee's personnel file was altered during the lawsuit to make it look as if the employee had a long history of misconduct. All of this evidence tends to show that the employer's explanation is suspect.

Ultimately, the employee in a discrimination lawsuit has the burden of proof. This means the employee must present enough evidence to convince the judge or jury that the employer discriminated. The employer doesn't have to prove that it did not discriminate; it only has to present some evidence of a legitimate motive. Of course, employers don't want to lose lawsuits, and typically present as much evidence as they can that their decisions were legitimate and legal. From a legal perspective, however, it's up to the employee to prove that the employer violated Title VII.

Getting Legal Help

If you believe that your employer discriminated against you, consider a consultation with an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can review the facts of your case and help you decide how to proceed. With the lawyer's help, you can consider whether you can come up with sufficient evidence to prove discrimination or whether some other strategy might better serve your interests (such as negotiating a severance package or trying to mediate your claims). If you decide to sue your employer, a lawyer can help you file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (a necessary prerequisite to filing a lawsuit) and file your case in court.

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