Arguing the decades-old analysis is no longer helpful to anyone, Reginald Sprowl petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to scrap application of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis in Title VII race discrimination and retaliation claims. On January 19, 2021, the Supreme Court rejected Sprowl’s petition and denied certiorari. Sprowl v. Mercedes-Benz U.S. Int’l, Inc., 815 Fed. Appx. 473 (11th Cir. 2020), petition for cert. denied (No. 20-790).

Sprowl, a Black technician for a major car company, filed an internal complaint against his team lead for allegedly making racist remarks. Following an investigation, the team lead was fired. Sprowl later felt his supervisor and coworkers blamed him for his team lead’s discharge and that he had been denied promotions because of his race and his previous complaint. Sprowl resigned from the company and filed a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.

The company moved for summary judgment on Sprowl’s claims. The trial court applied the McDonnell Douglas test. The test requires a complainant in a Title VII case who does not have direct evidence of discrimination to carry the initial burden under the statute for establishing a prima facie case of racial discrimination. In this case, he must show (i) that he belongs to a racial minority; (ii) that he applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants; (iii) that his job application was rejected; and (iv) thereafter, the company continued to seek applicants. After the prima case is established, the burden shifts “to the employer to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for its action. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Then, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to present evidence to show that the employer’s stated reason is a “pretext,” which, if proven, gives rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.

Applying McDonnell Douglas to Sprowl’s claims, the trial court held that, even if Sprowl made a prima facie case of discrimination and retaliation, the company provided several legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for not promoting him, including the fact that Sprowl had not demonstrated the requisite skills for a promotion, while other candidates had. Because Sprowl failed to show the company’s explanation was mere pretext, the court granted summary judgment and dismissed the case. Sprowl appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

In his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sprowl argued that the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis is unhelpful, overly complicated, and should be replaced by a “but-for” standard. When it comes to Title VII, the adoption of the but-for causation standard means a defendant cannot avoid liability just by citing some other factor that contributed to its challenged employment decision. So long as the plaintiff’s race was one but-for cause of that decision, that would be enough to impose liability. Sprowl cited several recent U.S. Supreme Court cases in support of his petition. Nonetheless, on January 19, 2021, the Court declined to hear his case.

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