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Law School Case Brief

Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa - 539 U.S. 90, 123 S. Ct. 2148 (2003)


A plaintiff does not need to present direct evidence of discrimination in order to obtain a mixed-motive instruction under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e et seq., as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.


An employee, who was her employer's, Desert Palace, only female warehouse worker and heavy equipment operator, experienced a number of problems with management and her coworkers that led to an escalating series of disciplinary sanctions and her eventual termination. The employee filed against the employer, in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, a Title VII action alleging sex discrimination and sexual harassment. The District Court, although dismissing the sexual-harassment claim, (1) allowed the sex-discrimination claim to go to the jury; (2) on the basis of evidence of sex discrimination presented by the employee, (a) denied the employer's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and (b) submitted the case to the jury; and (3) instructed the jury that (a) the employee had the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that she had suffered adverse work conditions of which the imposition had been motivated by sex, and (b) if the jury found both gender-related and lawful motives for the employer's treatment of the employee, then the employee was entitled to damages unless the employee proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the employer would have treated the employee similarly even if gender had played no role in the treatment. After the employer, asserting that the employee had failed to adduce direct evidence that sex had been a motivating factor in any of the adverse employment actions taken against the employee, unsuccessfully objected to the mixed-motive instruction, the jury awarded the employee backpay as well as compensatory and punitive damages. The District Court denied the employer's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.

A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, holding that the District Court had erred in giving the mixed-motive instruction, vacated and remanded. However, after rehearing the case en banc, the Court of Appeals (1) observed that  U.S.C.S. § 2000e-2(m) (a) imposed no special evidentiary requirement, and (b) did not reference "direct evidence;" and (2) reinstated the District Court's judgment. Petititioner employer sought certiorari review in the United States Supreme Court, claiming that respondent employee failed to adduce "direct evidence" that sex was a motivating factor in her dismissal.


Does the law require the presentation of direct evidence of discrimination in giving a mixed-motive instruction?




The United States Supreme Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in giving a mixed-motive instruction to the jury. Under 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e-2(m), the employee only had to "demonstrate" that the employer used a forbidden consideration with respect to any employment practice; therefore, the employee did not need to present direct evidence of discrimination in order to obtain a mixed-motive instruction. The employee only needed to present sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude, by a preponderance of the evidence, that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice.

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