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MA Supreme Judicial Court clarifies how to prove that an employer had a discriminatory motive

Today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling which clarified how Massachusetts courts should determine whether a jury could reasonably determine that an employer acted with a discriminatory motive.  The court held that a jury could reasonably determine that an employer acted with a discriminatory motive if the employee presents evidence that the employer’s asserted reason for its actions was not the true reason.  In other words, the court held that an employee does not need to present direct or “smoking gun” evidence that an employer acted with a discriminatory motive in order to prevail.

In the modern day workplace, “smoking gun” evidence of a discriminatory motive, like an email to an employee saying “I’m not promoting you because you’re a woman,” is usually not available.  People are smart enough to hide their discriminatory biases.  Indeed, many people cannot even admit to themselves that they are acting with discriminatory biases.  For these reasons, juries in employment discrimination cases often have to determine whether they can infer a discriminatory motive based on evidence which casts doubt on the employer’s asserted reason for its actions against the employee.  This ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will permit more juries to perform this role instead of allowing judges to do it.

The approach that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has taken respects the place of juries in the civil justice system.  The jury system is a democratic check on the judiciary.  Rather than giving judges all the power in the judicial system, like some countries do, the United States places some judicial power directly in the hands of citizens who serve on juries.  In cases where the parties have a right to a jury trial, the jury is supposed to serve as a fact finder that determines which facts to believe and decide which party should win the case based on those facts.  A classic factual determination that juries should perform in employment discrimination cases is determining whether an employer had a discriminatory motive for its actions.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling helps to ensure that juries get to perform this fact finding role in employment discrimination cases.