Maine’s Law Court Blows the Whistle on McDonnell Douglas

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Maine’s highest court has closed out the year with two notable decisions involving the state’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (WPA).  The decisions revise the method for analyzing WPA cases on summary judgment and, as a result, are likely to have impacts that are more procedural than substantive. 

When a party files a motion for summary judgment, they are essentially arguing that no factual dispute exists with respect to the key aspects of the case and that a court can therefore decide the case as a matter of law, without having to go to a trial.  In employment discrimination cases, courts have for years relied on a framework developed by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether or not a factual dispute exists that would prevent summary judgment from being awarded. The framework, known as McDonnell Douglas, generally sets out a procedure for presenting evidence of discrimination.  The procedure involves shifting burdens, where the employee must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination, which the employer must then rebut with an explanation as to why it had legitimate reasons for any actions it took.  Assuming the employer provides that explanation, the burden then shifts back to the employee to point to sufficient evidence in the record that would allow a jury to conclude that the employer’s conduct was nonetheless motivated, at least in some measure, by discrimination. 

In Brady v. Cumberland County (November 10, 2015) and Cormier v. Genesis Healthcare, LLC (December 15, 2015), the Law Court announced that it would no longer use the McDonnell Douglas framework for adjudicating WPA cases on summary judgment.  In brief, the Law Court noted that because of the way a WPA claim is defined under Maine law, an employee must produce evidence of causation—i.e. evidence that the employer had an unlawful motive for taking an adverse action—as part of his or her prima facie case.  This is in contrast to claims under Title VII, where employees are not required to produce evidence of causation until the third step of the McDonnell Douglas framework—after the employer has produced a legitimate non-discriminatory explanation for its actions. Noting this difference between the WPA and Title VII, the Law Court concluded that, for WPA cases, the second and third steps of the McDonnell Douglas framework are duplicative.  Consequently, rather than employing the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the Law Court explained that when analyzing WPA cases on summary judgment, it will consider evidence in a “unitary way and simply determine whether the record as a whole would allow a jury to reasonably conclude that the adverse employment action was motivated at least in part by retaliatory intent.” 

In a sense, then, the Brady and Cormier decisions do not signal a significant change.  In WPA cases, employees and employers will still need to present the same evidence to prevail on summary judgment; the difference is that the Law Court will not go through the exercise (or require the parties to through the exercise) of sorting that evidence through a burden-shifting framework.  Instead, in a nod to judicial efficiency, the Court will simply consider all the evidence at once to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to suggest that an adverse employment action was motivated at least in part by protected activity.