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Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc.: What Impact Will It Have? Maybe None

For the tenth time in approximately twenty years, the Supreme Court has attempted to clearly articulate the burden shifting analysis used in employment discrimination cases. On June 12, 2000, the United States Supreme Court issued the decision of Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Inc., U.S. , 120 S.Ct. 2097, 2110 (June 12, 2000).

With the release of this opinion, many thought that a plaintiff's burden of proof had been lifted somewhat, the full extent, however, many did not know. It has been approximately three months since the release of this opinion and one could argue that the case has done little to ease a plaintiff's burden. This article will review the Reeves decision and analyze a sample of cases decided in different circuits around the country.

Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing, Inc.

In Reeves, the employer contended that the Plaintiff had been fired for shoddy record keeping. In response, the Plaintiff offered specific evidence that he had properly maintained attendance records and that he was not responsible for the failure to discipline late and absent employees. Id . at 2107. On the basis of this evidence, the trier of fact concluded that the defendant's explanation for the termination was pretext and returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the jury's finding, holding that the verdict could not stand without evidence that the defendant had acted with discriminatory animus. Disagreeing strongly with the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff's evidence of pretext was sufficient to find that the defendant's asserted justification was false, permitting the jury to conclude that the employer had unlawfully discriminated. Id . at 2109.

Initially, the Reeves decision was seen as a victory for employment plaintiffs. In reality, however, Reeves may do little to help plaintiffs. In early application around the circuits, courts have attempted to either distinguish or draw parallels with Reeves; few have actually used Reeves to ease a plaintiff's burden.

Circuit Decisions

1 st Circuit

In Feliciano v. El Conquistador Resort and CC, 99-1810, (1 st . Cir. 2000), plaintiff brought suit under Title VII, complaining of termination based on race. The Court of Appeals, affirming summary judgment, drew a parallel with the Reeves decision holding that although their prior use of the label Apretext plus, may have resulted in a misunderstanding about the proof required for discrimination, they had been Acareful to explain that the phrase did not mean that the plaintiff always had to present evidence beyond proof of pretext.

The Court went on to specifically state that its precedents were consistent with Reeves and their application of the precedents in the appellant's case was consistent with Reeves. The Court stated that although it found that appellants explanations of her job performance problems generated a triable issue of pretext, they found her evidence of pretext thin and that appellant's evidence did not shed any light on the true reason for her termination, let alone show that the reason was discrimination based on appellant's Puerto Rican origin.

Second Circuit

Weinstock v. Columbia Univ., 99-7979 (2 nd Cir. 2000), the plaintiff contended that she was denied tenure because of her gender. Columbia asserted as a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason the fact that Weinstock's scholarship was not up to its standards. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Columbia. To establish pretext, Weinstock relied on three points: (1) gender stereotyping existed at the University; (2) there were irregularities in the ad hoc committee process, (3) she was treated differently than similarly situated males. Dismissing appellant's points, the Court of Appeals held that she had not produced sufficient evidence to establish pretext.

In his dissent from the majority, Judge Cardamone, relying on the Reeves decision, stated:

AYColumbia has not produced the strong, independent evidence of a third motive or alternative rationale that Reeves requires to overcome a plaintiff's proof of pretext and prevail as a matter of law. In this regard, Weinstock has more than met her burden to obtain a trial on the merits.

Fifth Circuit

It is especially interesting to see how the Fifth Circuit will react to the Reeves decision as it was the Fifth Circuit that the Supreme Court unanimously overturned. Early decisions, however, indicate that the Fifth Circuit will do little to change its analysis of employment discrimination cases. In Rubinstein v. Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund, et al., No. 98-30777 (5 th Cir. 2000), the plaintiff filed a Title VII and related state-law lawsuit against Tulane University. The district court granted summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed.

The appellant claimed that he was denied raises and promotions out of discriminatory animus directed toward his status as a Russian Jew. In support of his claim, appellant referenced a conversation he had with the Dean of the School of Engineering in which the Dean apparently speculated that the Chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department might be discriminating against appellant because he was Russian and Jewish. Tulane offered as its legitimate nondiscriminatory reason the fact that Rubinstein was a poor teacher, that the University lacked funds to give raises to every professor, and that Rubinstein was a poor university citizen, as evidenced by his lack of participation on committees.

The Court of Appeals held that while Rubinstein had produced some evidence of pretext on the issue of university citizenship, he had failed to produce evidence of pretext on the issue of poor teaching. Further, the Court of Appeals held that there was an overall lack of evidence of discriminatory intent, stating,

A[w]hile we are mindful of the Supreme Court's recent admonition that Title VII plaintiffs need not always present evidence above and beyond their prima facie case and pretext, discrimination suits still require evidence of discrimination. Id. (quoting Reeves , 2000 WL 743663, *5)

The Fifth Circuit went on to discount remarks made by professors on the promotion and pay raise committees. Specifically, the professors had stated that Rubinstein was a "Russian Yankee", that Jews were thrifty and that if the Russian Jew could obtain tenure, then anyone could. The Court held that these remarks were .stray remarks. and were not related to the employment decisions at issue. Id .

Ninth Circuit

The Ninth Circuit, however, has used the Reeves to reverse the granting of summary judgment See Chuang v. University of California Davis, 99-15036 (9 th Cir. 2000). In Chuang , plaintiffs, Dr. Ronald Y. Chuang and Dr. Linda Chuang, contended that officials at the University of California, Davis discriminated against them on the basis of their race (Asian) and national origin (Chinese) in violation of Title VII.

Plaintiffs alleged that they suffered discrimination as a result of Davis's failure and refusal to provide Dr. Ronald Chuang with a promised tenure position; (2) Davis's forcible relocation of the Chuangs' laboratory, and (3) Davis's failure to respond to Dr. Ronald Chuang's complaints regarding the misappropriation of some of his research funds. The district court granted summary judgment to Davis on all three claims. In reversing the district court's granting of summary judgment on the first two issues, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs had produced sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment.

Based on Reeves, the Court of Appeals concluded that, with respect to appellant's promotion claim, the evidence constituting the prima facie case was sufficiently strong to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding the truth of Davis's proffered nondiscriminatory reasons. The Court found that appellant's qualifications were extraordinary and yet he was the only full-time faculty member in his department who had not received a tenured position.

The Court further found, with respect to the forced relocation of the Chuang's laboratory, there was sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of fact. Specifically, Davis contended that Dr. Seldin, the presumptive Rowe Chair, demanded the precise space occupied by the Chuangs. Dr. Seldin, however, denied this contention in his deposition. Based upon the evidence listed above and the fact that appellants had also produced direct evidence of discrimination, the Court of Appeals reversed the granting of summary judgment.


The holdings in Feliciano, Williams, Weinstock, and Rubinstein suggest that some circuits view the Reeves decision as a distinguishable anomaly, whose holding is driven more by the facts of the case than the proscriptions in the anti-discrimination laws. The holding in Chuang , on the other hand, suggests that there may be a few circuits who will strive to carve out a place for Reeves among their important precedents. Seemingly, the singular truth about Reeves is that only time will tell its significance.

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