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On December 12, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (as referenced in a previous blog, Florida is in the Eleventh Circuit) issued its opinion in Tynes v. Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Case No. 21-13245 (11th Cir. Dec. 12, 2023).  In the opinion, the court reiterated that the McDonnell Douglas framework (discussed more below) is not “a stand-in for the ultimate question of liability in Title VII discrimination cases.”[1]  The court held, “Properly understood, McDonnell Douglas is an evidentiary framework that shifts the burden of production between the parties to figure out if the true reason for an adverse employment action was the employee’s race. It is not a set of elements that the employee must prove[.]”[2] This blog post will discuss the Tynes opinion and its importance in discrimination cases.

The court provided only a brief recitation of the facts in Tynes.  Tynes was an employee of the Department of Juvenile Justice (“Department”) for sixteen years.[3] “At the time of her termination, she was the superintendent of the Broward Regional Juvenile Detention Center.”[4]  One day, while Tynes was on medical leave, “an unusually high number of incidents required an officer to call for back up.”[5] In response, the assistant secretary of detention services assembled “a technical assistance team to review staffing and personnel issues.”[6] Before the final report was issued, the Department terminated Tynes.[7] Tynes did not have any disciplinary history.[8] The Department alleged that Tynes was terminated for “poor performance, negligence, inefficiency or inability to perform assigned duties, violation of law or agency rules, conduct unbecoming of a public employee, and misconduct.”[9]

Tynes subsequently filed suit under Title VII for race and sex discrimination.[10] Her “complaint also stated that it brought ‘other causes of actions [sic] which can be inferred from the facts herein.”[11] Tynes alleged that similarly situated white and male employees were treated differently and that the reasons for termination were pretextual (i.e., dubious).[12] Tynes pointed to two white superintendents whose facilities had “incidents that reflected a lack of control or failure to abide by the Department’s policies,” but they were not terminated.[13] Regarding pretext, Tynes presented evidence that the assistant secretary was biased against her.[14] Tynes’s direct supervisor testified that the written report from the assistant director contained inaccuracies and that the efforts of the technical assistance team amounted to a ‘search-and-kill mission’ against Tynes.”[15] The assistant director faltered during her testimony at trial.[16] The jury returned a verdict in favor of Tynes and awarded her $424,600 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in damages for emotional pain and anguish.[17] The court ordered the Department to reinstate Tynes under a new supervisor.[18]

Following the verdict, the Department renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively, sought a new trial.[19] The Department argued that for the Title VII claims, Tynes did not “present comparators who were ‘similarly situated in all material respects’ and therefore failed to satisfy her burden to establish a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas.” The Department also argued that Tynes did not properly plead her section 1981 claim (section 1981 does not have a cap on damages).[20] The district court denied the Department’s motion, holding that Tynes presented sufficient circumstantial evidence to establish the discrimination claims and that even if Tynes did not properly plead the section 1981 claim, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (rule 15(b)(1), to be exact) gives the court the discretion to allow an amendment to the complaint during the trial.[21] The Department appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.[22] In reviewing the district court’s order, the court provided an overview of Title VII case law.[23] As the court noted, “the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas set out a burden shifting framework designed to draw out the necessary evidence in employment discrimination cases.”[24] The court set forth a detailed breakdown of the McDonnell Douglas framework that is certainly worth reviewing.[25] The court summed up the framework as “an evidentiary tool that functions as a ‘procedural device, designed only to establish an order of proof and production.’”[26] The court further noted that “[w]hat McDonnell Douglas is not is an independent standard of liability under either Title VII or § 1981.”[27] The court continued:  Nor is its first step, the prima facie case—‘establishing the elements of the McDonnell Douglas framework is not, and never was intended to be, the sine qua non for a plaintiff to survive a summary judgment motion.’”[28] The court asserted that the Supreme Court’s terminology led to the confusion, as “prima facie case” in McDonnell Douglas “has a different meaning—it marks ‘the establishment of a legally mandatory, rebuttable presumption.’”[29]

The court went on to note that “McDonnell Douglas is ‘only one method by which the plaintiff can prove discrimination by circumstantial evidence.’”[30] The court explained that “[a] plaintiff who cannot satisfy the framework may still be able to prove her case with what we have sometimes call a ‘convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence that would allow a jury to infer intentional discrimination by the decisionmaker.’”[31] As the court stated, “[a] ‘convincing mosaic’ of circumstantial evidence is simply enough evidence for a reasonable factfinder to infer intentional discrimination in an employment action—the ultimate inquiry in a discrimination lawsuit.’”[32] Under the “convincing mosaic” standard, a plaintiff may use “any relevant and admissible evidence” to prove her case.[33] The court emphasized that the McDonnell Douglas framework is used like the convincing mosaic standard to “decide the ultimate question of intentional discrimination.”[34] As the court stressed, “[u]nder McDonnell Douglas, the failure to establish a prima facie case is fatal only where it reflects a failure to put forward enough evidence for a jury to find for the plaintiff on the ultimate question of discrimination.”[35] Following trial, the court’s only questions was “whether there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for the jury to find that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff.”[36]

Turning to the facts at hand, the court determined that Tynes did present sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict that it intentionally discriminated against her.[37] The court held that “to the extent that there are material differences between Tynes and her comparators at this stage of the case, it is the jury’s role. . .to determine how much weight the comparator evidence should be given.”[38] The court thus affirmed the district court’s order denying the Department’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.[39] The court concluded by asserting that “[a]fter a full trial on the merits, a defendant cannot successfully challenge the jury’s verdict by arguing only that the plaintiff’s comparators were inadequate or that the prima facie case was otherwise insufficient.”[40]

The Tynes opinion provides much-needed guidance for practitioners and litigants alike. Although there was some confusion surrounding the use of McDonnell Douglas, the Eleventh Circuit has done an excellent job of clarifying the framework. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this topic, or any topic related to labor and employment law, please contact us.

[1] Tynes v. Fla. Dep’t of Juvenile Justice, Case No. 21-13245 (11th Cir. Dec. 12, 2023), at *2, available at (last visited Dec. 14, 2023). The full citation for McDonnell Douglas is McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).

[2] Tynes, at *2.

[3] Id., at *3.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id., at *4.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id., at *5.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id., at *6.

[21] Id.

[22] Id., at *3. The Department did not even cite to rule 15(b)(1) on appeal, and the Eleventh Circuit determined that the Department’s challenge of that portion of the district court’s order was forfeited. Id.

[23] Id., at *7-8.

[24] Id.

[25] Id., at *8.

[26] Id., at *9 (quoting St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. V. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 521 (1993)).

[27] Id.

[28] Id. (quoting Smith v. Lockheed-Martin Corp., 644 F.3d 1321, 1328 (11th Cir. 2011)).

[29] Id. (quoting

[30] Id., at *12 (quoting Vessels v. Atlanta Indep. Sch. Sys., 408 F.3d 763, 768 n.3 (11th Cir. 2005)).

[31] Id. (quoting Smith,644 F.3d at 1327-28).

[32] Id., at *12-13 (citation omitted).

[33] Id., at *13 n.2.

[34] Id., at *14.

[35] Id.

[36] Id. (citation omitted).

[37] Id., at *15.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id., at *18.


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