The Burger Court (1969–86)

Court Decisions

How did the Court explain what an employment discrimination plaintiff must prove to establish a violation of Title VII?

The Burger Court established a general three-part, burden-shifting test for employees and employers in Title VII disputes in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973). The three stages are (1) prima facie case; (2) legitimate nondiscriminatory reason; and (3) pretext.

First, an employee suing under Title VII must establish a prima facie, or basic, case of discrimination. The Court explained that in a failure-to-hire case based on race, the applicant must show: (i) that he or she belongs to a racial minority; (ii) that he or she applied for and was qualified for the position; (iii) that despite his or her qualifications, the employee was not hired; and (iv) that after rejecting the plaintiff, the employer kept seeking applications from other employees outside of the plaintiff’s protected class.

If the employee or applicant establishes a prima facie case of race discrimination, the employer must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for rejecting the applicant. If the employer does present such a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action, then the burden shifts back to the employee to establish that the employer’s supposed legitimate nondiscriminatory reason was pretextual or false.

This three-stage process is still referred to in American employment jurisprudence as the McDonnell Douglas test.


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