Sunday, February 11, 2018

Teixeira v. Town of Coventry: Jury Instructions and the McDonnell Douglas Framework

In Texeira v. Town of Coventry, No. 17-1049.01A (Feb. 7, 2018). the First Circuit rejected the plaintiff's contention that the district court abused its discretion by instructing the jury on the McDonnell Douglas framework.

The McDonnell Douglas framework was established by the Supreme Court case in 1973. Because most victims of employment discrimination cannot point to a smoking gun, they typically have to establish a violation by pointing to circumstantial evidence. McDonnell Douglas established a structure for evaluating such evidence. Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff principally establishes discrimination by creating a weak of inference of discrimination and by undermining the credibility of the employer's asserted reason for the challenged action.

As I discussed in a prior post, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a vocal critic of the McDonnell Douglas framework, has mistakenly contended that the framework is limited to the summary judgment phase of a trial and that it is not relevant once a case gets before a jury. Indeed, in the 2000 decision in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, a unanimous Supreme Court applied the McDonnell Douglas framework in upholding a jury verdict under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. 

Likewise, in Teixeira, the First Circuit explained:
The Supreme Court's development of the McDonnell Douglas framework is a landmark in the realm of discrimination law. In this landmark decision, the Court did not restrict the use of the McDonnell Douglas framework to pretrial motions. Since then, lower courts routinely have signaled their approval of the use of adapted versions of the McDonnell Douglas framework to help jurors understand their roles in determining the merits of discrimination and retaliation cases. 
The First Circuit acknowledged that juries can be confused by the use of technical phrases that are part of the McDonnell Douglas framework. The answer, however, is not to abolish reliance on the framework in instructing juries but to present it in a way that can be easily understood. Here, the First Circuit concluded that the district court had passed that test, providing "the jury with a thoughtful, thorough, and easily understandable explanation of the relevant legal concepts."

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.