Discrimination. It ain’t rocket science. Well, except when it is.

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Yes, even NASA gets sued for discrimination from time to time.

Here is your proof.

It’s a case about a really smart person who applied for a few positions at NASA and didn’t get any of them. A federal judge in Maryland — really smart too — detailed all of the plaintiff’s qualifications, as well as those of the folks who got the positions for which the plaintiff applied.

They seem smart too.

But, the plaintiff alleged that his race motivated NASA to select others for the positions for which he applied.

All this brainpower notwithstanding, let’s use this case an excuse to get back to basics and explain the burden-shifting framework of a disparate treatment claim, like the plaintiff’s here.

First, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating that (1) he is a member of a protected group, (2) he applied for the position in question, (3) he was qualified for the job, and (4) the defendant acted (here, by rejecting his application) under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.

Second, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the decision it made (here, the plaintiff’s non-selection).

Third, if the defendant provides such a reason, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to raise a genuine dispute as to whether the defendant’s proffered reason is mere pretext for discrimination. A plaintiff “can prove pretext by showing that he was better qualified, or by amassing circumstantial evidence that otherwise undermines the credibility of the employer’s stated reasons.”

So, let’s see how that plays out here…

  1. The plaintiff is African American, applied for two jobs, was definitely qualified, but lost out on the positions to people outside of his protected group. We’ve got a prima facie case.
  2. For both positions, NASA proffered that the selectee was more qualified than the plaintiff. Like the plaintiff’s initial burden, this one is light too. So, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff.
  3. For the first position, as smart as the plaintiff is, he was unable to demonstrate to the court that he was more qualified for the position than the person NASA selected. Plus, the hiring process many different panelists, all of whom prepared for the interviews and provided input on the candidates. They reached a consensus, and the plaintiff wasn’t at the top of either list. The second position was a different story. There was one dominant decisionmaker, who appears to have applied separate hiring criteria. Oh, and he warned the plaintiff that filing an internal discrimination complaint would be bad for his career at NASA. That sounds like a pretext to me.

Summary judgment denied.


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