Employment Discrimination - Richard L. Ruth

Publication year1997

Employment Discriminationby Richard L. Ruth*

The 1996 survey period presented a rather unique year for the Eleventh Circuit in the employment discrimination arena.1 For example, the long anticipated wave of Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") litigation finally reached shore. In a different twist, employers fared better than in past years on summary judgment appeals. Finally, the first reported retaliation case in the Eleventh Circuit arising under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA") was decided. In all, as the following discussion will amply illustrate, it was a very busy year for employment law in the Eleventh Circuit, with significantly more noteworthy cases on appeal.

I. Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964

A. Theories of Liability and Burdens of Proof

1. Disparate Treatment Cases. In Mayfield v. Patterson Pump Co. ,2 the court analyzed a typical race disparate treatment case. In that case, an employee brought a Title VII race discrimination action against his former employer, alleging that his employer terminated him as a result of racial animus. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant-employer, and plaintiff appealed.3

On appeal, defendant did not dispute that plaintiff could establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination. However, defendant did contend that plaintiff was terminated for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons. In particular, defendant alleged that plaintiff was terminated because of an unexcused absence, lying about his whereabouts on that unexcused absence, approving for shipment to customers a nonconforming product, and failing to complete an assigned job. As a result of these workplace infractions, defendant contended that termination was appropriate. Plaintiff, on the other hand, produced evidence of isolated incidents in which racial epithets were used by co-employees and one of defendant's supervisors. However, none of these racial incidents and epithets were connected with the supervisor who terminated plaintiff. In fact, at his deposition, plaintiff expressly stated that the supervisor "who terminated him was not racist and did not evaluate him on the basis of race."4

In light of the evidence introduced at the summary judgment stage, the court concluded that defendant met its burden to produce legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for the employment actions taken against plaintiff.5 Furthermore, the court held that plaintiff wholly failed to offer evidence to establish that defendant's explanation for plaintiff's discharge was a pretext for discrimination, and plaintiff himself refuted any suggestion that the supervisor's terminating him was motivated by race.6 For those reasons, the court held that the district court properly granted defendant's motion for summary judgment and affirmed the judgment of the district court.7

In Trotter v. Board of Trustees8 the court was called upon to examine racial discrimination in an unequal salary context. In that case, plaintiffs had been employed in a hospital maintained by defendant. Plaintiffs were both African-American. Subsequently, a white individual was hired in the unit at a much higher salary than plaintiffs, even though he had less experience than plaintiffs. When plaintiffs complained to the hospital about the salary disparity, the hospital investi- gated and found that the white individual's salary was in error, and that he should not have been given a higher salary than plaintiffs.9 Nonetheless, before the hospital concluded its investigation, plaintiffs filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). After acknowledging its error, the hospital offered to pay plaintiffs the difference between their salaries and the white individual's salary, but plaintiffs refused the offer. Nevertheless, after a new compensation system was implemented, the hospital paid plaintiffs a lump sum equal to the difference between their salary and the white individual's salary.10 The plaintiffs eventually brought suit against defendant in the United States District Court, alleging sex and race discrimination in violation of Title VII, Section 1981, and the Equal Pay Act. Only plaintiffs' race discrimination claim was tried before a jury. "At the conclusion of the evidence, but before the case was given to the jury for deliberation, the district court granted the [defendant's] motion for judgment as a matter of law," and plaintiffs then appealed that ruling.11

On appeal, plaintiffs first contended that they presented direct evidence of discrimination which precluded summary judgment for defendant. They had indeed presented evidence that a head nurse in their unit had once explained to a doctor that she had left the emergency room, where she had worked as a nurse, because she did not like taking orders from an African-American person.12 Furthermore, plaintiffs alleged that on another occasion the head nurse attempted to discharge a patient who was causing problems for a white employee.13 However, despite this evidence, the court noted that the head nurse was not involved in the challenged salary decision, and thus any statements of discriminatory intent attributable to her could not constitute direct evidence of discrimination.14 In fact, the court noted that a new individual had taken over the head nursing duties in plaintiffs' unit, while the head nurse in question was preparing to set up another unit in the hospital.15 Moreover, the court noted that the prospective salary of the white employee was discussed only with the human resources specialist at the hospital, and not with any head nurse.16 Therefore, the court concluded that there was no direct evidence of discriminatory intent that demonstrated the salary decision was racially motivated.17

The court proceeded to analyze plaintiffs' case under a circumstantial evidence framework.18 The court noted that defendant did not argue that plaintiffs failed to present a prima facie case of racial discrimination.19 Therefore, the court directly proceeded to address "whether the [defendant] had satisfied its burden to produce evidence to rebut that presumption."20 In this regard, the defendant presented extensive testimony establishing that the white employee was paid a higher salary purely by mistake, due in part to the inexperience of the human resource specialist issuing the salary, and the workload of the human resources department at the time.21 Indeed, the court took note of a conversation between the human resource specialist and the white employee in which the white employee stated he would not work for less than the disputed salary amount.22 Furthermore, the court noted with significance that the human resources specialist did not even know the race of the plaintiffs when making the challenged salary decision.23

The court then proceeded to address whether plaintiffs met their ultimate burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the salary decision was motivated by intentional discrimination.24 In this regard, the court concluded that there was simply no evidence presented by plaintiffs that any decisionmaker at the hospital connected with the salary decision at issue was motivated by racial animus, and thus held that plaintiffs did not carry their ultimate burden of persuasion.25 For those reasons, the judgment of the district court was affirmed.26

In Pritchard v. Southern Co. Services,27 the court reviewed the district court's entrance of summary judgment for the defendant-employer on a Title VII gender discrimination claim. In that case, plaintiff was an electrical engineer hired by defendant to perform nuclear engineering work. Plaintiff suffered from severe depression related to the nuclear work, and her doctor stated that while she could work, she could not do so in the nuclear field. However, the employer did not transfer her, contending that all of its engineers needed to have the flexibility to perform nuclear-related work and that it would have been her responsibility to apply for any nonengineering job. In addition to her primary claim under the ADA, plaintiff also brought a secondary Title VII gender discrimination claim against her employer. In essence, plaintiff presented evidence that she had heard of a male employee who she believed was transferred to a non-nuclear position, unlike plaintiff. However, she did not know for certain why he had been transferred, but she surmised it was related to the stress of nuclear work.28 Moreover, all of her information about that employee came from conversations with co-workers.29

In rejecting plaintiff's Title VII gender discrimination claim, the court noted that all of plaintiff's statements in her deposition used to support her response to defendant's motion for summary judgment constituted inadmissible hearsay.30 Because plaintiff presented absolutely no conflicting evidence that could be reduced to admissible form at trial, she failed to demonstrate that the employer's nondiscriminatory reason for discharge was pretextual, and the court affirmed the district court's entrance of summary judgment for the employer on plaintiff's Title VII gender discrimination claim.31

In Harris v. Shelby County Board of Education32 the Eleventh Circuit analyzed, in part, an employee's race discrimination claim against a defendant school board. In that case, plaintiff applied for principalship at a high school and alleged that the defendant discriminated against him by failing to select him for that principalship because of his race. Plaintiff brought suit, in part under Title VII, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, back pay, and other employment benefits. Subsequently, the district court entered summary judgment in favor of defendant, and plaintiff appealed.33

On appeal, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant on plaintiff's Title VII claim.34 The court noted that plaintiff had presented evidence to support his...

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