California Employment Law Blog

Bearing the Burden: Understanding Summary Judgment in Employment Discrimination

Posted by Timothy B. Del Castillo | Feb 13, 2024 | 0 Comments

In California, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) play pivotal roles in shielding employees from employment discrimination based on protected characteristics. Title VII encompasses factors like race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, while FEHA extends protection to additional categories such as age, disability, and sexual orientation.

For readers who may be unfamiliar, summary judgment is an important legal procedure in employment discrimination cases, facilitating the swift resolution of disputes without a full jury trial when there are no genuine disputes over material facts. Often, in employment cases, employer defendants are the parties seeking summary judgment. 

In the case of Hittle v. City of Stockton (2023), the Ninth Circuit highlighted the three main ways plaintiffs can overcome summary judgment in an employment discrimination case: presenting direct evidence of discrimination, offering circumstantial evidence, or satisfying the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test. 

In discrimination cases, where direct or circumstantial evidence is often limited, plaintiffs frequently turn to the McDonnell Douglas test. In this approach, the plaintiff first establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, prompting the defendant to offer a legitimate reason for the adverse action. Subsequently, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff, requiring them to demonstrate that the employer's stated reason is essentially a pretext or a cover for discriminatory practices.

While these three frameworks—direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, and McDonnell Douglas—are generally viewed as employee-friendly, successful in many instances at defeating summary judgment, there are situations where employees have been unable to meet the criteria of any of these tests. Hittle v. City of Stockton is a notable case exemplifying such circumstances.

Following an external investigation, the former fire chief, Ronald Hittle, faced termination based on alleged violations, including deficiencies in leadership, misuse of city resources, inaccuracies in reporting time off, and potential favoritism influenced by undisclosed financial interests. Initiating legal action against the city for alleged religious discrimination, Hittle referenced a remark by the deputy city manager, Laurie Montes, implying his involvement in a "Christian coalition" and a "church clique" within the fire department. 

In response, the city sought summary judgment, leaning on their external investigation that portrayed Hittle as a subpar employee. Despite Hittle's efforts to present Montes' comments as either direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination, or alternatively, as evidence of pretext under McDonnell Douglas, the district court sided with the city's motion for summary judgment. This decision prompted Hittle to appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court's decision to grant summary judgment, interpreting Montes' remarks as expressing concerns about public perceptions rather than reflecting personal bias towards Hittle. The Court based its opinion on the fact that Montes was essentially echoing content from anonymous letters sent to the city. According to the Court, these were simply "stray remarks" insufficient to establish discrimination.

Upon its review, the Ninth Circuit determined that, given the thorough external inquiry into Hittle's employment history, the city had valid reasons for terminating him due to his deficient job performance. The Ninth Circuit upheld the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the city, emphasizing that the city's legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Hittle were sufficient to counter his evidence of discrimination and pretext.

Hittle v. City of Stockton provides valuable insights into the complexities of overcoming summary judgment motions. Despite a general pro-employee evidentiary standard, the case underscores the critical need for employees to present substantial evidence for a successful defense against such motions, often involving reliance on direct or circumstantial evidence, or the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.

About the Author

Timothy B. Del Castillo

Tim Del Castillo is Founding Partner of Castle Law: California Employment Counsel, PC.


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