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Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Reverse Trump Judge Dismissal of Gender Discrimination and Retaliation Case

News and Analysis
Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Reverse Trump Judge Dismissal of Gender Discrimination and Retaliation Case

Judge Andre Mathis, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, cast the deciding vote to reverse the dismissal by a Trump district judge of a gender discrimination and retaliation case filed by a female professor at Vanderbilt University. The June 2023 decision was in Lee v. Vanderbilt University, 2023 U.S. App. Lexis 15820 (6th Cir. June 22, 2023). 


What is this Case About and What Happened in the District Court? 

Vanderbilt University hired Mirielle Lee as an assistant professor of history in 2008. The University hired her as a “spousal hire” in order to “retain her husband as a faculty member.”  

In 2015, Lee applied for promotion to associate professor with tenure. After receiving unanimous recommendations in support of her, the History Department unanimously recommended the promotion she requested. So did the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Nevertheless, the University denied her promotion application. 

Lee filed a grievance in 2016, claiming gender discrimination. This led to a finding that there was “merit” in her grievance, and an extension of her employment contract and agreement to reconsider her promotion in 2018-19. In 2017, in a meeting with her department chair, Lee maintained that in a “loud and accusatory tone,” he “berated” her because of statements she made in her grievance, and assigned her additional Departmental duties “to interfere with her research progress needed for her 2018[-19] tenure and promotion application.” In fact, that application was also denied.  

Lee filed suit in federal court, contending that the University had discriminated against her on the basis of gender and also retaliated against her for filing the 2016 grievance. Among other contentions, she maintained that male spousal hires are “almost always granted a promotion to associate professor with tenure,” while female spousal hires are “rarely granted” such promotions. She included a chart with her complaint showing that five out of six female spousal hires were denied promotion while eight out of ten male spousal hires received such promotion.  

Without permitting additional discovery, Trump District Judge Eli Richardson granted the University’s motion to dismiss the case. Lee appealed to the Sixth Circuit.


How did Judge Mathis and the Sixth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important? 

  Judge Mathis provided the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that reversed the lower court and sent the case back so that Lee can pursue her claims.  The majority found that Lee’s complaint clearly “set forth sufficient facts to state a plausible claim of gender discrimination.” They specifically criticized the lower court and the dissent for arguing that at this early stage of the case, Lee was required to allege that “male spousal hires who received tenure were similarly situated to her,” since that issue would properly come up later and after discovery.  

 The majority also found that Lee’s complaint properly alleged a “plausible claim of retaliation,” and that the district court was wrong to fault it for “not setting forth enough factual details.” As the majority explained citing prior precedent, while such detail may be necessary after discovery or at trial, to “demand” such detail at the motion to dismiss stage “disregards” precedent and the federal rules of procedure.  

 The Sixth Circuit decision sets precedent for federal courts in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It is obviously important to Professor Lee, who can now pursue her gender discrimination and retaliation claims. It will also help others in those states who raise such discrimination claims by making clear that a discrimination victim should have a chance to proceed to try to prove her claims, and that a complaint cannot properly be dismissed because it does not contain factual details that may be required to prove the claim at summary judgment or trial. In addition, the ruling provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Mathis to our federal courts.