McDonnell Douglas, Part II (The District Court)

The Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell Douglas is a good example of appellate courts unnecessarily complicating the law. Going back and looking at the trial court’s opinion in the case illustrates an easier way of framing discrimination questions.

The facts of McDonnell Douglas, as recounted by the federal district court opinion, are rather straightforward. For blogging purposes, I will not provide separate citations for each sentence, but the facts of the case, as recounted by the trial court, are available at the following cite: Green v. McDonnell-Douglas Corp., 318 F. Supp. 846, 847 (E.D. Mo. 1970). In recounting the trial court’s decision, I am not claiming that it accurately captured all of the facts of the underlying case. Rather, I am showing how the case was framed and viewed for purposes of litigation.

Mr. Green worked for McDonnell Douglas as a mechanic. His employment record demonstrated that his work was viewed as satisfactory. In 1963, Mr. Green applied to work in the Electronic Equipment Division. The supervisors in the Electronic Equipment Division informed Mr. Green that if he transferred into the department, there was a possibility of a layoff, due to the short term of the project upon which they were working. Mr. Green accepted a position in the Electronic Equipment Division.

In the spring of 1964, employees in the Electronic Equipment Division were laid off; however, Mr. Green was not one of these employees. It became clear that more employees in the department would be laid off. The company used a semiannual ranking of employees to determine which employees would be laid off. The company tried to place employees on the layoff list in other jobs within the company, and gave a voluntary test “to help determine the qualifications of the men for higher job classifications which were open.” Plaintiff chose not to take the test.

It was undisputed that plaintiff had been involved in civil rights related protest activities since the early 1960s. During meetings related to the layoff, Mr. Green told company officials that he believed he was being laid off because of his participation in these activities. The company officials told Mr. Green this was not the case. On August 28, 1964, Mr. Green and eight other technicians were laid off.

After his layoff, Mr. Green engaged in numerous protests against McDonnell Douglas, including writing letters, filing charges and picketing. In October of 1964, Mr. Green, along with other members of the Congress on Racial Equality, stopped their cars on the main roads to McDonnell Douglas’s plant during the time of a shift change. Mr. Green may also have been involved in a second demonstration that caused McDonnell Douglas’s employees to be locked in the building at the end of their work day.

On July 26, 1965, Mr. Green applied for an open position at McDonnell Douglas. Even though he was qualified, he was not offered the job. The defendant claimed that it rejected the plaintiff due to his involvement in the demonstrations, which the company considered to be illegal actions.

Mr. Green brought two claims against McDonnell Douglas. First, he claimed that his original 1964 layoff violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 because he was fired due to his race and participation in civil rights activities. Second, Mr. Green claimed that the company violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) by refusing to rehire him based on his race, his participation in civil rights activities, and his opposition of practices that were deemed unlawful under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Prior to the trial on the merits, the trial court dismissed plaintiff’s Title VII claim that the company refused to rehire him based on his race. The trial court held that because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had not issued a reasonable cause finding on plaintiff’s refusal to rehire claim based on race, the court did not have jurisdiction to consider this claim. (Editor’s Note: This was an incorrect reading of Title VII’s requirements). The only Title VII claim considered by the district court was plaintiff’s claim that McDonnell Douglas refused to rehire him in retaliation for his participation in protest activities. However, plaintiff’s section 1981 claim that he was not rehired based on his race still remained for resolution by the trial court.

The trial court dismissed the layoff claim as untimely, leaving the refusal to rehire claims for trial by the court. In ruling on the discrimination and retaliation claims, the trial court articulated that “the controlling and ultimate fact questions are: (1) whether the plaintiff’s misconduct is sufficient to justify defendant’s refusal to rehire, and (2) whether the ‘stall in’ and the ‘lock in’ are the real reasons for defendant’s refusal to rehire the plaintiff.” The trial court held that the refusal to rehire (brought under section 1981) was not based on racial prejudice. Further, the trial court found that plaintiff’s participation in the stall-in and lock-in constituted illegal activities, and that the company could legitimately base its decision not to rehire plaintiff on his participation in this illegal conduct.

Remember, that this case was decided at a time when jury trials were not available under Title VII, and the judge sat as a factfinder at trial. Although some may disagree with the outcome of the case, the trial court judge framed the analytical question correctly. The question was what motivated the failure to re-hire. When the case reaches the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, that court greatly complicates the underlying question.

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