McDonnell Douglas Framework (Step 1): The Prima Facie Case

McDonnell Douglas Framework (Step 1): The Prima Facie Case

Under the McDonnell Douglas Framework, (Framework), as applied by Washington State courts, how does a plaintiff establish step 1 -- the prima facie caseHere's my point of view (NOTE: please read our DISCLAIMER before proceeding).


The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework has three steps:

STEP 1: The "plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, which creates a presumption of discrimination." Scrivener v. Clark College, 181 Wn.2d 439, 446, 334 P.3d 541, (2014) (citing, Riehl, 152 Wn.2d at 149-50; Kastanis v. Educ. Emps. Credit Union, 122 Wn.2d 483, 490, 859 P.2d 26, 865 P.2d 507 (1993)) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis and hyperlink added).

STEP 2: "[T]he burden shifts to the defendant, who must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action." Mikkelsen v. Public Utility District No. 1 of Kittitas County, 189 Wn.2d 516, 527 (Wash. 2017) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis and hyperlink added).

STEP 3"[I]f the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must produce sufficient evidence showing that the defendant's alleged nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action was a pretext." Id. (internal citations omitted) (emphasis and hyperlink added). 


The term "prima facie" means "at first sight; on first appearance but subject to further evidence or information." Black's Law Dictionary 1228 (8th ed. 2004). And a "prima facie case" means: "1. The establishment of a legally required rebuttable presumption ... [; or] 2. A party's production of enough evidence to allow the fact-trier to infer the fact at issue and rule in the party's favor." Id. 

In Washington State, legal theories under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (proven via circumstantial evidence) have unique and separate formulations for the prima facie case. For example, here are prima facie case requirements for two common legal theories, inter alia:

1. HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT (HARASSMENT): to establish a prima facie case of hostile work environment, the plaintiff must show: (1) that the harassment was unwelcome; (2) that the harassment was based on membership in a protected class; (3) that the harassment affected the terms and conditions of employment; and (4) that the harassment can be imputed to the employer. Glasgow v. Georgia-Pacific Corporation, 103 Wn.2d 401, 406-07, 693 P.2d 708 (Wash. 1985). Take our Hostile Work Environment Video Test:

2. UNLAWFUL RETALIATION: to establish a prima facie case of unlawful retaliation, the plaintiff must show (1) that the he/she engaged in a protected activity (e.g., complaining to the employer about job discrimination based on a protected class, participating in an investigation to determine whether discrimination occurred, etc.); (2) that the plaintiff experienced an adverse employment action; and (3) that there is a causal link between the activity and the adverse action. Alonso v. Qwest Communications Company, 178 Wn.App. 734, 753-54, 315 P.3d 610 (Wash.App.Div. 2 2013) (citing, Short v. Battle Ground Sch. Dist., 169 Wn.App. 188, 279 P.3d 902 (Div. 2 2012), overruled on other grounds by Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc., 180 Wn.2d 481, 325 P.3d 193 (Wash. 2014)). Take our Unlawful Retaliation Video Test:

Additional legal theories under the Washington Law Against Discrimination include, but are not limited to the following: disparate treatment, disparate impact, failure to provide reasonable accommodations, etc. Again, each theory has its own requirements for a prima facie case. Moreover, some elements of the prima facie case may contain additional requirements.

Read More

We invite you to read our broader article about this topic, entitled: The McDonnell Douglas Burden-Shifting Framework.

Learn More

If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced Washington State Employment Discrimination Attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Please note: the information contained in this article is not offered as legal advice and will not form an attorney-client relationship with either this author or Williams Law Group, PS; please see our DISCLAIMER.


Popular Posts