October 2007, Volume 93, Issue 6|
Putting Pretext in Context: Employment Discrimination, the Same-Actor Inference, and the Proper Roles of Judges and Juries
93 Va. L. Rev. 1533 (2007)
The course of federal employment discrimination litigation is replete with instances of lower federal courts attempting to define and apply broad rules that, usually, though not always, have the effect of defeating plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination. The same-actor inference, first applied by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals 1991, aptly exemplifies this trend. The essence of the same-actor inference is that an individual who harbors discriminatory animus toward a protected class of persons would not knowingly hire a member of that class and then fire that same individual on account of his or her protected status. Since 1991, a circuit split has emerged on the question of who should evaluate the import of same-actor facts in a given case. Several circuits have followed the Fourth Circuit and employ the inference to justify summary judgment, directed verdicts, and judgments notwithstanding the verdict, all in favor of defendant-employers. Other circuits, in contrast, expressly reserve to the jury the decision regarding how to weigh same-actor facts. The Supreme Court has yet to resolve this split. This paper argues that the history of employment discrimination litigation, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and public policy considerations require that it be juries, not courts, who determine the import of same-actor facts in a given employment discrimination case.
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