Circumstantial Data Enough For Sex Discrimination Charge: Supreme Court

June 9, 2003 ( - Workers can proceed with sex discrimination cases against their employers even if they only have circumstantial evidence, the nation's high court ruled in a case from Las Vegas.

>The unanimous US Supreme Court ruling is expected to make it easier to pursue such suits by turning away a government argument that a higher standard of “direct evidence” should be required, according to a Reuters news report.

>Justice Clarence Thomas rejected the standard proposed by the US Justice Department, saying that a plaintiff need only present sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude, by a preponderance of the evidence, that sex was a motivating factor, he said. The plaintiff may use direct or circumstantial evidence. The ruling applied to “mixed motive” cases with legitimate and illegitimate reasons motivating the employer’s action.

Fired for Fighting

According to the Reuters report, the case involved Catharina Costa, a warehouse worker from 1987 to 1994 at Caesars Palace Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Costa, the only female in the warehouse, was disciplined a number of times and was eventually fired. The firing came after she was involved in a fight with a fellow employee, Herbert Gerber. Both were disciplined because the facts surrounding the incident were in dispute. But Gerber, who did not have a history of disciplinary actions, received only a five-day suspension. Costa sued, claiming sex discrimination while she was an employee and in her firing.

A federal judge allowed the case to go to trial. Costa presented evidence she had been singled out for “stalking” by a supervisor, that she received harsher discipline than men for the same conduct, that she was treated less favorably for overtime and that her supervisors tolerated sex-based slurs against her.

A jury awarded her more than $364,000 in damages. A US appeals court ruled for Costa, finding the 1991 civil rights law does not impose a special requirement of direct evidence of discriminatory intent. Justices upheld that appeals ruling Monday. Thomas pointed out that the court has often acknowledged the utility of circumstantial evidence in discrimination cases.