Ninth Circuit: Subjective Criteria Cannot Be Used at Prima Facie Stage

Nicholson was a pilot for Cape Air. The airline rated her as unqualified to fly certain aircraft because of "CRM" skills, which included her communication and cooperation skills with her crew. She was the only female pilot in the Pacific area of operations. She had a personal relationship with one of the other pilots.

Once disqualified from flying a certain type of plane, she did not bid on other types of aircraft and was fired for job abandonment. She sued for sex discrimination under Title VII.

The court reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment. The court disagreed with the district court's determination that Nicholson was unqualified - an element of the prima facie case:
This court has long held that subjective criteria should not be considered in determining whether a plaintiff is “qualified” for purposes of establishing a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas. Instead, “[t]he qualifications that are most appropriately considered at step one [of McDonnell Douglas] are those to which objective criteria can be applied . . . .” Lynn v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 656 F.2d 1337, 1345 n.8 (9th Cir. 1981).
The court also found a genuine issue of material fact regarding pretext. Sometimes the court requires specific evidence when there is only circumstantial evidence (rather than direct evidence of discrimination such as sex-based comments). But here, the court picked from its patchwork of jurisprudence on what amount of evidence is required to show pretext, and settled on its most employee-friendly standard:
To avoid summary judgment at this step, however, the plaintiff must only demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute of material fact regarding pretext.
The amount of evidence required to do so is minimal. “We have held that very little evidence is necessary to raise a genuine issue of fact regarding an employer’s motive; any indication of discriminatory motive may suffice to raise a question that can only be resolved by a fact-finder. When the evidence, direct or circumstantial, consists of more than the McDonnell Douglas presumption, a factual question will almost always exist with respect to any claim of a nondiscriminatory reason.” McGinest v. GTE Serv. Corp., 360 F.3d 1103, 1124 (9th Cir. 2004)
The court found sufficient evidence of pretext. Under the above formulation of the law, how could it not? In fact, the court said that the evidence supporting the prima face case alone in this case would have been sufficient.

I'm pointing this out because it's time for the Ninth Circuit to articulate a clear standard regarding summary judgment in discrimination cases. Here's what the court said in another case in 2006:
To establish that a defendant's nondiscriminatory explanation is a pretext for discrimination, plaintiffs may rely on circumstantial evidence, which we previously have said must be "specific" and "substantial" to create a genuine issue of material fact. n7 Godwin v. Hunt Wesson, Inc., 150 F.3d 1217, 1222 (9th Cir. 1998) ("Such [circumstantial] evidence of 'pretense' must be 'specific' and 'substantial' in order to create a triable issue with respect to whether the employer intended to discriminate on the basis of sex.").
Cornwell v. Electra Cent. Credit Union, 439 F.3d 1018, 1029 (9th Cir. Or. 2006).

The court in Cornwell then went on to note that Godwin may have been undermined by later decisions:

Although there may be some tension in our post-Costa cases on this point -- several of our cases decided after Costa repeat the Godwin requirement that a plaintiff's circumstantial evidence of pretext must be "specific" and "substantial" n9 -- this panel may not overturn Ninth Circuit precedents in the absence of "intervening higher authority" that is "clearly irreconcilable" with a prior circuit holding, see Miller v. Gammie, 335 F.3d 889, 893 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc), because that power is generally reserved to our en banc panels. See Miller, 335 F.3d at 899; United States v. Hayes, 231 F.3d 1132, 1139-40 (9th Cir. 2000); United States v. Washington, 872 F.2d 874, 880 (9th Cir. 1989). Whether or not the precedential weight of Godwin has been diminished to any degree by the Supreme Court's decision in Costa, or by our decision in McGinest, we conclude that Cornwell's evidence is sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding the motives for his demotion under either the Godwin standard which would require "specific" and "substantial" circumstantial evidence of pretext, or the McGinest standard, which would not.
Cornwell v. Electra Cent. Credit Union, 439 F.3d 1018, 1031 (9th Cir. Or. 2006).

The Cornwell court seems to be politely suggesting that there is a patchwork of decisions and they cannot really be reconciled without an en banc intervention, followed by Supreme Court clarification of its prior holdings. Just sayin'.

The case is Nicholson v. Hyannis Air Service, Inc. and the opinion is here.