September 21, 2010
Tennessee Supreme Court Rulings of September, 2010 Significantly Limit Summary Judgment in Employment Cases - Will Ensure More Cases Go to Trial
On September 20, 2010, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued two opinions which will have a dramatic impact upon employment discrimination and retaliation cases in Tennessee courts. The two decisions, Gossett v. Tractor Supply Company, Inc. and Kinsler v. Berkline, will dramatically decrease an employer's ability to obtain summary judgment, and as a result, employers and their lawyers will find that more such cases will have to proceed to trial.
Summary judgment law generally has been re-defined in Tennessee in recent years, with the Tennessee Supreme Court providing a more limited role for summary judgments than under the Federal Court counterpart rules. Tennessee law requires that a moving party affirmatively negate an essential element of the other party's claim, or that the moving party show that the other party will not be able to prove an essential element of his claim at trial.
Employment law jurisprudence in Tennessee, in the Federal Courts, and in most states has applied the familiar McDonnel Douglas "burden shifting" approach in discrimination and retaliation cases. This basically means that, once an employee has established a prima facie case, the employer must come forward with a legitimate, non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reason for the employment action. If the employer does this, the burden then shifts back to the employee to prove that the employee's stated reason was not the real reason, that it was "pretextual," and that the real reason motivating the employment decision was discrimination or retaliation.
The McDonnel Douglas framework is typically first utilized at the summary judgment stage, where the employer typically tries to win a dismissal of the employee's claim for lack of sufficient proof.
With the latest holdings in Gossett and Kinsler, the Tennessee Supreme Court has effectively removed the McDonnel Douglas framework from the summary judgment process in Tennessee cases, holding that the approach is "incompatible with Tennessee summary judgment jurisprudence." The Supreme Court explained that an employer's ability to meet its McDonnell Douglas requirements does not mean that there is no genuine issue of material fact for summary judgment purposes. A "legitimate reason" for an employment decision does not necessarily equate to the "sole reason."
Therefore, employers' lawyers in Tennessee will almost certainly find that fewer cases may be disposed of on summary judgment, and that more cases will have to go to trial - where juries are inevitably made up of persons with experience as employees, more than experience as employers.
The dissent in the Gossett and Kinsler cases noted that, even in the other states which have adopted a more restrictive summary judgment standard than the Federal standard, they continue to apply the McDonnel Douglas analysis.
It will be interesting to watch how these latest decisions impact employment litigaion in Tennessee. Almost certainly, these decisions will help employees take more cases to trial, which will be viewed by employers as a bad thing.