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More Tennessee Discrimination Suits on Horizon

Posted by Tamara

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently handed down a ruling which will make litigation by employees easier in the Volunteer State, than in federal court. The ruling won by a narrow vote of 3 to 2. Tennessee’s Supreme Court consists of 5 justices, currently 2 men and 3 women. As required by the Tennessee constitution, they meet in Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville.

Tennessee’s highest court ruled on September 20, 2010 that summary judgments will now be subjected to a different standard. Employers often utilize summary judgments as a first line of defense to stop discrimination suits early in the process. If the employer wins an early summary judgment, the employee cannot continue with the lawsuit.

Examples of landmark cases include Gossett v. Tractor Supply Co., where the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employee. The employee sued her employer, because she was reassigned after filing a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor. No matter what the employer’s reason was for the reassignment, the court ruled that the employee had the right to sue.

This decision, authored by Justice Janice Holder, was groundbreaking and overturned the previous ruling in Allen v. McPhee. In that case a female employee was reassigned after complaining of harassment “to protect her from any further sexual harassment.”

Up until that point, the Tennessee used the McDonnell Douglas framework for determining summary judgments, which is also the legal test used by the federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that when an employer could offer a lawful reason for an employment action that the employee was challenging, the employer who was entitled to summary judgment. The exception to that ruling was if the worker could show the court that the employer’s reason for the employment action was not the true reason for the action.

As a result of this ruling, Tennessee becomes one of a few states where McDonnell Douglas does not prevail, and where an employee can file a discrimination suit against an employer without first filing a complaint with a state or federal agency.

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