Supreme Court Relaxes Standard of Proof for Plaintiffs in “Mixed Motive” Discrimination Cases

Volume 2, Issue 7
June 11, 2003

On Monday, June 9, 2003, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Title VII plaintiffs accusing their employers of employment discrimination need only offer circumstantial evidence in order to obtain what is known as a "mixed motive" jury instruction at the time of trial. Mixed motive cases are those in which an employer's decision was arguably motivated by both legitimate and illegitimate reasons.

In this case, Catharina Costa was terminated by Caesars Palace and claimed she had been subjected to sex discrimination. At trial, Caesars showed that Costa had a poor disciplinary record, coupled with escalating conflicts with her coworkers and management, including a physical altercation with another employee which resulted in her termination. At trial, the jury found in favor of Costa, and awarded her $364,000.00. The jury was told that if Costa's gender was a motivating factor in Caesars' treatment of her, she was entitled to prevail, even if Caesars' conduct was also based on nondiscriminatory reasons. Caesars objected to that mixed motive instruction, claiming that it was only proper if Costa could prove direct evidence of discrimination. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually sided with Costa, and Caesars appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's decision refused to hold discrimination plaintiffs like Costa to a higher burden of proof as both Caesars and the Bush Administration had urged. Instead, the Court stated that a plaintiff can merely introduce circumstantial evidence of discrimination in order to obtain a mixed motive jury instruction. The practical effect of this ruling is that Title VII plaintiffs will have an easier burden to meet in order to permit juries to determine whether their protected trait (i.e., gender, race, etc.) was a motivating factor in their employers' treatment of them. Link: Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, No. 02-679 (2003).

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