Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Proving an Employer's Intent: Disparate Treatment Discrimination and the Stray Remarks Doctrine after Reeves V. Sanderson Plumbing Products

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Proving an Employer's Intent: Disparate Treatment Discrimination and the Stray Remarks Doctrine after Reeves V. Sanderson Plumbing Products

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Throughout the development of employment discrimination law, the United States Supreme Court has wrestled with the task of producing a suitable analytical framework, under which plaintiffs can attempt to prove their cases of disparate treatment by their employers. An element of this task has been determining which types of evidence of discriminatory intent have probative value, and what effect that evidence should have on plaintiffs' and defendants' cases. In June 2000, the Supreme Court decided Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products,1 a case involving a disparate treatment claim brought by an employee alleging age discrimination by his employer in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).2

Reeves represents the most recent step taken by the Supreme Court in its effort to clarify what a plaintiff must prove, using circumstantial evidence, in order to prevail on a claim of intentional employment discrimination.3 In doing so, the Reeves Court also touched upon how evidence of remarks made in the workplace can assist plaintiffs in satisfying their burden of persuasion.4 Thus, the Reeves opinion may be viewed as having two major impacts on employment discrimination law: (1) it clarified the evidentiary burden borne by a plaintiff in a disparate treatment case; and (2) it modified the Stray Remarks Doctrine5 as it applies to such disparate treatment cases.6

This Note evaluates the current status of the Stray Remarks Doctrine in light of the Court's opinion in Reeves.7 It additionally seeks to determine which types of discriminatory workplace remarks, if any, should have probative value, both in cases where the plaintiff produces direct evidence of discrimination, and also in cases where the plaintiff must prove his or her case by circumstantial evidence.

To complete this evaluation, this Note begins by providing an overview of plaintiffs' claims under the ADEA and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).8 Parts II and III of this Note describe the elements of a disparate treatment claim and trace the Court's development of an analytical framework with

which plaintiffs may prove these claims. In Part IV, this Note focuses on the Court's decision in Reeves, particularly noting the clarifications that the Court made regarding the respective burdens placed on both plaintiffs and defendants in disparate treatment suits.9 This Note continues on in Part V to discuss the development of the Stray Remarks Doctrine and its application by lower federal courts in employment discrimination cases. Finally this Note explores the status of the Stray Remarks Doctrine in light of the Court's opinion in Reeves10 and questions what part, if any, of this doctrine should still be considered good law.

11. MAKING A CASE UNDER TITLE VII AND THE ADEA

A. An Overview of Title VII and the ADEA

Employment discrimination suits occupy an expanding portion of federal court dockets. Typically brought under Title VII,11 the majority of these cases allege discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.12 Moreover, a growing number of employment discrimination suits today also allege violations of the ADEA.13

Title VII makes it unlawful for employers,14 labor organizations, and employment agencies to discriminate against employees15 and applicants on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, and

national origin.16 Enacted in 1964, and amended most recently in 1991, Title VII was designed by Congress to achieve equality of employment opportunities and to eliminate discriminatory impediments to that equality.17 In passing Title VII, Congress did not intend, however, to "command that any person be hired simply because he was formerly the subject of discrimination, or because he is a member of a minority group."18

Similarly, the ADEA, enacted in 1967, and substantially amended in 1974 and 1978,19 prohibits employers,20 labor unions, and employment agencies from participating in employment discrimination on the basis of age. …

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