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In the employment discrimination context, qualifications evidence may suffice, at least in some circumstances, to show pretext.
African-American petitioners Ash and Hithon filed suit, alleging that respondent Tyson Foods, Inc., violated 42 U. S. C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it promoted two white males to fill shift manager positions sought by petitioners. During trial, the petitioner alleged that Tyson’s plant manager, who made the disputed hiring decisions, had referred on some occasions to each of the petitioners as “boy.” According to the petitioners, this was evidence of discriminatory animus. At the close of petitioners’ evidence, the District Court denied Tyson’s motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). The jury found for petitioners. After trial, Tyson renewed its motion under Rule 50(b). The District Court granted that motion and, in the alternative, ordered a new trial under Rule 50(c). The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the grant of the Rule 50(b) motion as to Ash, deeming the trial evidence insufficient to show pretext, but reversed as to Hithon, finding enough evidence to go to the jury. It also affirmed the District Court’s Rule 50(c) remedy. Certiorari was granted.
Under the circumstances, was there evidence of discriminatory animus against petitioners, thereby leading to the conclusion that the appellate court erred in arriving at its decision?
The Court vacated the judgment of the court of appeals and the case was remanded for further consideration. According to the Court, while the court of appeals’ judgment may be correct in the final analysis, it erred in two respects. First, there was evidence that the employer's plant manager, who made the disputed decisions not to promote petitioners to shift manager positions, had referred on some occasions to each of the petitioners as "boy." Although it was true the word "boy" would not always be evidence of racial animus, it did not follow that the term, standing alone, was always benign. Insofar as the court of appeals held that modifiers or qualifications were necessary in all instances to render the disputed term probative of bias, the court's decision was erroneous. Also, the court of appeals erred in articulating the standard for determining whether the asserted nondiscriminatory reasons for the employer's hiring decisions were pretextual. Some formulation other than the test the court of appeals articulated would better ensure that trial courts reached consistent results. The Court held that the appellate court should determine in the first instance whether the two erroneous aspects of its decision were essential to its holding.