How Identifying ‘Similarly Situated’ Coworkers May Be Crucial to a Georgia Employee’s Discrimination Lawsuit

Whether you’re an employee who’s endured discrimination or an employer facing a discrimination claim, it is important to understand how the employment discrimination litigation process works. An employee’s success is predicated upon clearing a series of evidentiary hurdles. For employers, success may lie in persuading the court that any one of those components was lacking. Whichever side you’re on, an experienced Atlanta employment discrimination lawyer can help you pursue your case in the most effective way possible.

As we noted last month, workers who allege employment discrimination may prove their cases either by presenting a “convincing mosaic” of circumstantial evidence or by satisfying the elements of the test created by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 case of McDonnell Douglas v. Green. A recent federal race discrimination case from here in Atlanta shows the McDonnell Douglas procedure at work, and how a single evidentiary flaw can doom a worker’s case.

The employee was a sales representative for an analytic and diagnostic lab. After two years, the lab fired the representative. It said she had underperformed. She said it was race and gender discrimination.

Step 1: The ‘Prima Facie’ Case

The first step in the McDonnell Douglas test is what’s called the “prima facie” case. That means showing that:

(1) you were a member of a protected class;
(2) you suffered an adverse employment action;
(3) you were qualified for the work you were doing; and
(4) your employer treated similarly situated employees outside your protected class more favorably.

If the worker does that, then the burden shifts to the employer to present a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action it took. After that, the burden returns to the worker to prove that the legitimate reason the employer stated was just a pretext for discrimination.

For most employees, including this sales representative, the prima facie case rises and falls on the fourth and final element. Meeting this requirement demands that the worker identify colleagues who were in a similar position but were outside the plaintiff’s protected class and were treated comparatively better. These colleagues are called “comparators.”

The Importance of IDing Similarly Situated Coworkers

A place where many workers stumble — and where employers can succeed in defeating the lawsuit — is the identification of comparators. If the comparators the plaintiff names are not actually similarly situated, then everything falls apart and the plaintiff’s case fails due to a lack of a prima facie case. Generally, federal law requires that the worker name comparators who “engaged in the same basic conduct…, had the same supervisor, and share[d] the plaintiff’s employment or disciplinary history.”

The sales representative’s claim faltered because the comparators she named lacked the required commonality of employment and disciplinary history. The employer had placed the representative on a “Performance Improvement Plan,” a form of workplace discipline; none of the comparators had been on a PIP. Additionally, the representative’s sales and rankings were far below those of the named comparators. These were “significant differences in work history,” which meant the comparators were not similarly situated and the representative’s case failed.

The Atlanta race discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert have the knowledge and skills you need for your Title VII or Section 1981 discrimination case. Whether you’re the employer or the employee, our team has the experience you need to maximize the effectiveness of your case. Contact us today at 404-873-8048 or through this website to schedule a consultation.

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