We have discussed before the ability of Oklahoma residents to potentially bring lawsuits in federal court due to unlawful termination based upon discrimination. Generally, these lawsuits rely on Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act to set out a cause of action against the putatively guilty employer. But, how do courts decide whether a person has been terminated for an illegal reason in a discrimination case? After all, unlike in the movies, in most cases there is no "smoking gun" piece of evidence that conclusively proves an employer's discriminatory intent. The answer that the federal courts have come up with is a three-part burden-shifting test to determine if illegal discrimination occurred.
The federal court system is divided into several Circuits, each of which covers a section of the country, usually a few contiguous states. These circuits generally handle appeals that come from the districts into which the circuits themselves are divided. Oklahoma is covered by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Basically, when the 10th Circuit makes a ruling on an issue, unless it is contradicted by the U.S. Supreme Court, all the federal courts in the states in the circuit must follow that precedent.
This past July, the 10th Circuit handed down a decision that details the test for a wrongful termination case based upon Title VII discrimination. This test is, in turn, based upon a previous decision made by the Supreme Court. The test has three parts, each of which puts the burden of production of evidence on a different party. First, the plaintiff needs to show that he or she is part of a protected class, that the termination or other adverse employment effect occurred and that it can be reasonably inferred that the termination was due to discrimination. If this succeeds, the employer must be able to give some legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination. If this occurs, then the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the reason given for the termination is a pretext, or an attempt to cover up discrimination by calling it something else.
As one may notice, this burden shifting can get complicated. Anyone who may have been wrongfully terminated, or discriminated against in another way at work, may want to get more information about their legal rights.