Indirect Evidence of Bias Enough to Send Sex Discrimination Claim to Trial

By Erin L. Winters March 17, 2016

A former school superintendent may proceed with her sex discrimination claim after presenting evidence that the school board’s decision not to renew her contract was at least partially motivated by gender, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

In 2007, Linda Quigg became superintendent of the Thomas County School District in Georgia. She received mostly favorable performance reviews, but had conflicts with several board members and was the subject of ethics complaints during her tenure. In mid-2011, the school board voted five to two against renewing Quigg’s contract. After the termination of her employment, the school district filed a complaint against Quigg with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. The agency recommended suspension of her teaching license for ethics violations during her tenure.

Quigg filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She later brought a lawsuit in federal court and alleged sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 against the school district and five members of the school district’s governing board.

Quigg relied on the mixed-motive theory for her Title VII discrimination claim. Under this theory, employers can be liable for an adverse employment action, such as a termination of employment, where evidence demonstrates that in addition to legitimate business reasons, discrimination or another illegal basis was also a motivating factor for the action.

With her lawsuit, Quigg claimed that her gender was, in part, a motivating factor in the school board’s decision not to renew her contract. She provided indirect, or circumstantial, evidence of the alleged discrimination by pointing to the fact that two of the school board members who voted against renewing her contract had urged her to hire a male assistant superintendent, and had also made gender-based comments regarding the district leadership including: “[I]t’s time to put a man in there.”

The trial court awarded summary judgment in favor of the school district and concluded that Quigg did not adequately present evidence of sex discrimination. The trial court analyzed the evidence using McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, where an employer must demonstrate legitimate nondiscriminatory business reasons for an adverse employment action to defeat claims of discrimination. Quigg appealed.

The appeals court reversed and rejected the lower court’s application of McDonnell Douglas. The case is the first time the 11th Circuit has considered the appropriate summary judgment framework for evaluating mixed-motive discrimination claims based on indirect evidence. 

Instead of using McDonnell Douglas, the court analyzed whether the matter could survive summary judgment when an employee could demonstrate that a protected characteristic was a motivating factor behind an employer’s action. The court concluded that a jury could determine whether Quigg’s indirect evidence of sex discrimination was a motivating factor in the school board’s decision not to renew her contract. 

The school district defended the decision not to renew Quigg’s contract by asserting that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the alleged discriminatory actions.

Finally, the court upheld summary judgment on Quigg’s Section 1983 claims against three of the five school board members, and her claims of retaliation against the school district.

Quigg v. Thomas Cty. Sch. Dist., 11th Cir., No. 14-14530 (February 22, 2016).

Professional Pointer: An employer facing a discrimination complaint as a result of an adverse employment action, such as a termination of employment or demotion, should thoroughly investigate to ensure that indirect evidence of discrimination is not present, in addition to identifying legitimate nondiscriminatory business reasons for the action.

Erin L. Winters is an attorney with Foster Employment Law, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Oakland, California.



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