Fourth Circuit Underscores Burden of Proof for Intentional Discrimination
March 16, 2023
The Fourth Circuit issued a decision yesterday, reinforcing a plaintiff’s burden in employment discrimination cases. In Balderson v. Lincare Inc., No. 21-1753 (4th Cir. Mar. 15, 2023), a three-judge panel reversed the trial court’s conclusion that Chandra Balderson’s termination from employment was the result of discriminatory animus based on her sex. The trial court reached this conclusion after a bench trial, solely upon finding that (1) Balderson had established a prima facie case of discrimination; (2) the employer’s proffered explanation for why it terminated Balderson was not credible; and (3) a male employee, who was disciplined less harshly for a similar infraction, was an appropriate comparator.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit stated that the trial court failed to consider the possibility that the employer made a bad business decision that had nothing to do with Balderson’s sex. Underlining the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133 (2000), the court explained that even where an employer fails to establish a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action, the plaintiff still must come forward with evidence establishing the ultimate issue of discriminatory intent. In this case, “while Balderson had presented sufficient evidence to prove that [the employer’s] decision to terminate her employment was unwise and even unfair, she failed at any stage to provide a basis for inferring that her discharge had anything to do with her sex.” In fact, Balderson testified “that in her experience at Lincare before her termination, sex was never an issue – that “[n]o one ever made any gender-related comments directed at [her]” and there was nothing about the termination process that led her to believe she was being treated differently because of her gender.
With respect to the comparator, the Fourth Circuit explained that the differences between Balderson’s and her male supervisor’s conduct was material. The court also stated that even if their conduct was similar, their respective job duties were distinguishable. Given these differences, the court reasoned that it was improper to infer that the disparity in their punishments could only be explained as sex discrimination.
All told, the Fourth Circuit’s decision underscores the burden of proof a plaintiff must satisfy under the McDonnell-Douglas framework: It is not enough to disbelieve the employer; the factfinder must believe the plaintiff’s explanation of intentional discrimination.