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How the Burden of Proof Can Shift in New Jersey Employment Discrimination Claims

Proving that an employer in New Jersey has engaged in unlawful employment discrimination is often difficult. The facts of a case might not include overt policies or statements that show an employer’s discriminatory intent. The U.S. Supreme Court identified a framework to use in cases where a plaintiff does not have direct evidence of an employer’s intent to discriminate. If a plaintiff can establish enough facts to support a legal claim for discrimination, the burden of proof will temporarily shift to the defendant to show a nondiscriminatory reason for their actions. This is known as the “McDonnell Douglas framework,” after the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.

Multiple federal statutes protect workers against various forms of discrimination, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (race, sex, color, national origin, and religion), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (age, for workers who are at least forty years old), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (actual or perceived disabilities). Courts most commonly use the McDonnell Douglas framework in Title VII claims, but it may appear in claims under other federal statutes.

Many state courts have also adopted McDonnell Douglas or something similar. For example, the New Jersey Appellate Division cited the decision in a recent case involving a sex discrimination claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The McDonnell Douglas framework generally applies in claims under Title VII that allege “disparate treatment,” which typically involves treatment of an employee or group of employees that differs based on a protected category like race or sex. A plaintiff might be able to point to specific statements, actions, or policies that demonstrate an intent to discriminate. Employers are often good at covering their tracks, though, and providing reasons for an adverse action that sounds reasonable on the surface. An employer might claim, for example, that they fired an employee because they regularly arrived late to work. Further investigation might reveal that the employee was rarely late, or that the employer never complained about lateness or disciplined the employee before firing them. Lateness was merely a pretext for the employer’s discriminatory action.

The framework typically arises during the summary judgment phase of a case. This is the point when a defendant can move to have the case dismissed because the plaintiff allegedly does not have sufficient evidence to support their claims. The McDonnell Douglass decision established a three-part framework:
1. The plaintiff must be able to make a prima facie (“at first sight”) case for unlawful discrimination by a preponderance of evidence. This may involve several elements, including that the plaintiff is part of a protected group, they satisfied their job requirements, they were fired or faced other adverse actions despite their fitness for the job, and the employer sought someone to replace them with the same qualifications but of a different group.
2. If the plaintiff meets their burden of proof, the burden then shifts to the defendant to provide a nondiscriminatory justification for the adverse action.
3. If the defendant satisfies this element, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s stated reason was only a pretext for their discriminatory intent.

If you have a dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York, the experienced and knowledgeable employment lawyers at the Resnick Law Group can answer your questions and address your concerns. Please contact us online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 today to schedule a confidential consultation.

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