In the Civil Rights Act of 1991,
amending Title VII, Congress clarified, among other things, the standard
for causation in the context of so-called “mixed motive” cases. “Mixed
motive” cases are those cases where the evidence establishes that the
employer was motivated both by discriminatory as well as non-discriminatory
motives. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 provided that “an unlawful
employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates
that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor
for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1991 clarified the standard for a finding
of causation where the plaintiff proved the existence of a “mixed motive,”
the Act was silent as to the type of the evidence which would satisfy this
causation standard.2 There was a split in the circuits, with a number
of courts of appeals holding that a plaintiff could establish the existence
of a “mixed motive” only where the plaintiff proved the existence of
a discriminatory motive by some form of “direct evidence.”3
In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court recognized that its holding
departed from Justice O’Connor’s concurrence in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins,
490 U.S. 228 (1989), a case decided prior to the enactment of the Civil
Rights Act of 1991. Because many courts of appeals had been following
Justice O’Connor’s concurrence from Price Waterhouse, Desert Palace establishes
a new rule that will affect cases in a number of circuits.
In this article, we analyze Desert
Palace, and several cases decided since June 9 that suggest how Desert
Palace will affect federal anti-discrimination law. As we discuss
below, while Desert Palace resolves a conflict that existed in the circuits,
the Court’s analysis has raised a number of questions that undoubtedly
will continue to challenge litigants and the courts.
It is well-settled in federal anti-discrimination cases that, at all times,
the plaintiff bears the burden of proof that an adverse employment action
occurred because of unlawful discrimination.5 Perhaps the most common
method courts have used to assess whether or not a discriminatory motive
may be inferred is the “burden shifting” method established in McDonnell
Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under this method, a
Title VII plaintiff must first establish a so-called “prima facie case”;
the employer then must articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason
for the adverse employment action; and, finally, the employee has the opportunity
to show that the proffered reason of the employer is false and merely a
pretext for discrimination.6 Notwithstanding the momentary shift
to the employer of this burden of articulating a legitimate, non-discriminatory
reason under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff continues to bear the ultimate
burden of proof on the issue of discriminatory intent.
In contrast to the typical McDonnell
Douglas “burden-shifting” framework, consider the hypothetical case where
the plaintiff contends that the employer was motivated not only by unlawful
discrimination, but also by lawful non-discriminatory motives. In
Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court analyzed such a “mixed-motive” case
under Title VII before Title VII was amended by the Civil Rights Act of
1991. A plurality of the Court held that an employer could avoid
liability under Title VII if it could show that, even though an impermissible
motive was involved in an employment action, the same decision would have
been made regardless of that motive.7 The Court in Price Waterhouse
provided no definitive holding, however, on the related issue of what kind
of evidence was necessary to prove a “mixed-motive” case.
Two years after the Price Waterhouse decision, Congress amended Title VII
by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, partly in response to Price Waterhouse.
Specifically, § 107 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 set forth new standards
in “mixed-motive” cases by creating two new statutory provisions.8
The first provision states that
a plaintiff may establish the existence of an unlawful employment practice
if the plaintiff can show that unlawful discrimination was “a motivating
factor,” even though other factors also motivated the practice.9
The second provision limited the employer’s defense that had been established
in Price Waterhouse. Under this provision, if an employer can “demonstrate
that [it] would have taken the same action in the absence of the impermissible
motivating factor,” a plaintiff would not be allowed to obtain damages
or an order requiring the employer to, among other things, reinstate, hire,
or promote the employee; however, the plaintiff could still obtain “declaratory
relief, certain types of injunctive relief, and attorney’s fees and costs.”10
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 did not address specifically the nature of
the evidence courts would require for a plaintiff to prove that an unlawful
consideration motivated an otherwise lawful employment action. Because
the Act is silent on this issue, many circuit courts of appeals continued
to rely on Justice O’Connor’s concurrence in Price Waterhouse to hold
that a “mixed-motive” plaintiff must present “direct evidence” to establish
liability. In Costa v. Desert Palace, Inc., 299 F.3d 838 (9th Cir.
2002), aff’d, 123 S. Ct. 2148 (2003), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
departed from this view and held that no form of “direct evidence” was
required to make out a “mixed-motive” case. On January 10, 2003,
the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the issue.
As with most anti-discrimination cases, Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 123
S. Ct. 2148 (2003) presents a relatively unique set of circumstances. Catharina
Costa (“Costa”), a warehouse worker and heavy equipment operator, brought
suit under Title VII alleging discrimination on the basis of sex after
she was fired by Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino (“Caesars”), a well-known
Las Vegas hotel and casino. Costa was the only woman employed in
her position at Caesars. As an employee, Costa had an escalating
series of disciplinary problems. Finally, after Costa was involved
in a fight in a warehouse elevator with a co-worker, Caesars fired her.
While Costa admitted that her disciplinary issues were real and had played
a role in her termination, she maintained that her sex was also a motivating
factor. Specifically, Costa alleged that, as a woman, she received
fewer overtime opportunities, was given harsher discipline than her male
co-workers, and was punished for failing to conform to sexual stereotypes.
Costa brought suit in the United
States District Court of the District of Nevada. After the district
court denied Caesars’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, the jurywas given a “mixed-motive” jury instruction and found in favor of Costa.
The jury awarded Costa $64,377.74 in back pay, $200,000 in compensatory
damages11 and $100,000 in punitive damages. The district court gave
the following jury instruction, which became the centerpiece of Caesars’
You have heard evidence that the
defendant’s treatment of the plaintiff was motivated by the plaintiff’s
sex and also by other lawful reasons. If you find that the plaintiff’s
sex was a motivating factor in the defendant’s treatment of the plaintiff,
the plaintiff is entitled to your verdict, even if you find that the defendant’s
conduct was also motivated by a lawful reason.
However, if you find that the defendant’s
treatment of the plaintiff was motivated by both gender and lawful reasons,
you must decide whether the plaintiff is entitled to damages. The plaintiff
is entitled to damages unless the defendant proves by a preponderance of
the evidence that the defendant would have treated plaintiff similarly
even if the plaintiff’s gender had played no role in the employment decision.
At trial, Caesars unsuccessfully
objected to the instruction on the grounds that Costa “had failed to adduce
‘direct evidence’ that sex was a motivating factor in her dismissal or
in any of the other adverse employment actions taken against her.” On
appeal, the Court of Appeals initially agreed, vacating and remanding the
case back to the district court. After an en banc rehearing, however,
the Ninth Circuit reinstated the district court’s judgment. The
en banc court disagreed with Caesars’ contention that “Costa should have
been held to a special, higher standard of ‘direct evidence.’” The
Ninth Circuit instead found that “Title VII imposes no special or heightened
evidentiary burden on a plaintiff in a so-called ‘mixed motive’ case.”
In so construing the statute, the Court of Appeals held that Costa’s
“evidence was sufficient to warrant a mixed-motive instruction and that
a reasonable jury could have found that [Costa’s] sex was a ‘motivating
factor in her treatment.’”
On review by the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas, writing for an unanimous
Court, first noted that it did not need to address whether Justice O’Connor’s
concurrence in the 1989 Price Waterhouse decision was controlling since
the Civil Rights Act of 1991 superceded that case and provided the answer
to the issue. Noting the judicial canon that where the words of a
statute are clear, “the ‘judicial inquiry is complete,’” the Court
first looked to the language of § 2000e-2(m) of the 1991 Act and noted
that it only requires “a plaintiff [to] ‘demonstrate’ that an employer
used a forbidden consideration with respect to ‘any employment practice.’”
The Court determined that “the statute does not mention, much less require,
that a plaintiff make a heightened showing through direct evidence.” Also,
because Congress explicitly defined the term “demonstrates” in Title
VII as to “meet the burdens of production and persuasion,” the Court
reasoned that if Congress intended to impose a heightened evidentiary burden
on Title VII plaintiffs, it would have explicitly done so, as it has done
in other comparable statutes.
The Court further noted that “circumstantial
evidence” is often as probative as “direct evidence” and that it is
even permitted in criminal cases where the burden of proof is much higher.
Absent a contrary Congressional indication, because the conventional
rule of civil litigation and much Title VII litigation always has been
that a plaintiff may prove his or her case through the use of “‘direct
or circumstantial evidence,” the Court held there was no basis to find
that a Title VII plaintiff should not be allowed to use either kind of
evidence in a “mixed-motive” case.
Impact on Courts Requiring Direct Evidence
At least one circuit court of appeals has recognized that Desert Palace
required the reversal of a district court verdict in favor of the defendant
because of the district court’s refusal to provide a “mixed motive”
jury instruction. In Rowland v. Am. Gen. Fin., Inc., 340 F.3d 187
(4th Cir. 2003), a sex discrimination case alleging a failure-to-promote,
the Fourth Circuit held the plaintiff’s appeal in abeyance pending the
outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision. Prior to Costa, the Fourth
Circuit, like various other circuit courts, had required a heightened “direct
evidence” standard for a plaintiff to receive a “mixed-motive” jury
At trial, the jury found in favor
of the defendant. The plaintiff then appealed the jury verdict on
the grounds that the district court erred by not granting a “mixed-motive”
jury instruction, as she had requested. The Fourth Circuit noted
that while the defendant claimed that the plaintiff was not promoted due
to her lack of “people skills,” there was sufficient evidence for a jury
to find that plaintiff’s sex may have also been a motivating factor in
the defendant’s decision not to promote her. In vacating the district
court judgment and remanding the case, the Fourth Circuit found that the
district court’s refusal to permit a “mixed-motive” jury instruction
constituted reversible error.
The recent Desert Palace case resolved a split among the circuit courts
regarding the types of evidence a plaintiff may use to obtain a “mixed-motive”
jury instruction. However, courts and litigants are now beginning
to argue about the meaning of the Desert Palace holding. For instance,
a handful of federal district courts have suggested that the Supreme Court’s
decision may impact “single-motive” cases,12 which have traditionally
been analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Unlike
a “mixed-motive” case where a plaintiff alleges that the adverse employment
decision was motivated by a mixture of both lawful and unlawful reasons,
a “single-motive” case is one where the plaintiff alleges that the employment
decision was taken only “because of” discrimination.
Despite the views expressed by
these decisions, a strong argument can be made that Desert Palace should
have no effect on “single-motive” cases. Section 2000e-2(m) of
Title VII states that “an unlawful employment practice is established
when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex,
or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice,
even though other factors also motivated the practice.” Because
Congress specifically used the term “other factors” in § 2000e-2(m),
an argument exists that Congress intended this statutory section to apply
only to “mixed-motive” cases. Under this theory, had Congress wished
to apply the § 2000e-2(m) analysis to “single-motive” cases, Congress
would simply have amended § 2000e-2(a), which makes illegal employment
actions taken “because of” race, gender, or other impermissible factors.
Therefore, Desert Palace, which only construed
§ 2000e-2(m) in the context of “mixed-motive” cases, may be so limited.
While several district courts and commentators have predicted that Desert
Palace may impact how courts assess motions for summary judgment, in the
first court of appeals decision reviewing a grant of summary of judgment
following Desert Palace, the Eighth Circuit held that the recent Supreme
Court decision did not alter the outcome of the case. In Allen v.
City of Pocahontas, 340 F.3d 551 (8th Cir. 2003), the Eighth Circuit affirmed
summary judgment for the employer in an age and gender discrimination case.13
Noting the recent Desert Palace decision, the court held that “the
result in this case remains the same . . .” as “[the plaintiff] has provided
no evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a reasonable jury could
logically infer that age or gender was a motivating factor in her termination.”
Although Desert Palace permits
a plaintiff to prove discriminatory intent through the use of either “direct
or circumstantial evidence” in a “mixed-motive” case, there may exist
circumstances where, for strategic reasons, employers may seek a “mixed-motive”
jury instruction. That situation may exist, for example, if the employer
believes that it can benefit from the limited employer defense established
by 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(2)(B) of Title VII. This defense provides
that an employer can cut off “damages” or an “order requiring any admission,
reinstatement, hiring, promotion, or payment” if it can show that it would
have taken the same employment action without consideration of the unlawful
motive.14 It should be noted, however, that if a plaintiff can establish
by a preponderance of the evidence that discrimination was at least a “motivating
factor” in the employment decision, the employer cannot escape all liability
and could still be subject to “declaratory relief, certain types of injunctive
relief, and attorney’s fees and costs.”
Also, Desert Palace serves as yet
another reminder to employers that they should continue to be vigilant
in requiring appropriate documentation of adverse personnel actions, to
promote adherence to written personnel policies, and, where appropriate,
to use progressive discipline. If an employer’s personnel actions
are well-documented, contemporaneous and in conformity with written policies,
the employer will be in a strong position to respond to claims of employment
1. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m)
2. Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 123 S. Ct. 2148, 2154 (2003).
3. See generally Fernandes v. Costa Bros. Masonry, Inc., 199 F.3d
572, 582 (1st Cir. 1999) (describing the circuit split and various positions
regarding what constitutes “direct evidence” that emerged among the circuit
court of appeals after the Price Waterhouse decision).
4. Desert Palace, Inc., 123 S. Ct. at 2155.
5. Tex. Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256 (1981).
6. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 411 U.S. at 802-05.
7. Price Waterhouse, 490 U.S. at 258 (1989).
8. Desert Palace, Inc., 123 S. Ct. at 2151.
9. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m) states:
Except as otherwise provided in this
subchapter, an unlawful
employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates
that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin
was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other
factors also motivated the practice.
10. Desert Palace, Inc., 123 S. Ct. at 2151.
11. The district court judge granted remittur, however, and reduced
Costa’s award of compensatory damages to $100,000.
12. Griffith v. City of Des
Moines, 4:01-CV-10537, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14365, **38-39 (S.D. Iowa
July 3, 2003) (“[C]ourts are no longer obliged to apply the McDonnell
Douglas framework when considering a motion for summary judgment on a “single
motive” Title VII claim . . . [A] plaintiff may bring his Title VII claim
‘according to the burdens articulated in [the] Civil Rights Act of 1991,’
without being confined to the strictures of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting
framework. Thus, to survive summary judgment, plaintiff must simply demonstrate
that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether or not race
was a motivating factor in an adverse employment action.”) (internal citation
omitted); Gonzalez v. City of Minneapolis, 267 F. Supp. 2d 1004, 1008 (D.
Minn. 2003) (“Prior to the recent Supreme Court decision in Desert Palace,
Inc. v. Costa, all of [plaintiff’s] claims for discrimination and retaliation
would have been analyzed under the traditional burden-shifting paradigm
articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.”); Dare v. Wal-Mart Stores,
Inc., 267 F. Supp. 2d 987, 991-92 (D. Minn. 2003) (“The dichotomy produced
by the McDonnell Douglas framework is a false one. In practice, few employment
decisions are made solely on basis of one rationale to the exclusion of
all others. Instead, most employment decisions are the result of the interaction
of various factors, legitimate and at times illegitimate, objective and
subjective, rational and irrational. The Court does not see the efficacy
in perpetuating this legal fiction implicitly exposed by the Supreme Court’s
ruling in Desert Palace.”).
13. Allen, 340 F.3d at 558.
14. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(2)(B).