New 6th Circuit Ruling and its Impact on Disparate Discipline Cases in Tennessee

A recent case from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals offers an informative ruling on another variation of a similar theme for the court. The court previously addressed the issue of differing discipline as the basis for a discrimination case in the context of two employees involved in the same incident. In this newest case with the potential to impact Tennessee employers and employees, the issue was differing discipline in separate but similar instances. In this case, the court decided that a female employee should be allowed to pursue her sex discrimination case after showing that she was fired for making the same (or equally severe) mistake as other male coworkers who were not terminated for their offenses.

The employee, Karon Jackson, worked as a mental health technician (MHT) at Detroit Receiving Hospital’s Mental Health Crisis Center. MHTs were responsible for assisting registered nurses with the patient discharge process by collecting paperwork and the patient’s personal effects. At the process’s conclusion, MHTs were also charged with physically transporting the patient out of the center. Workers were required to check the patient’s wristband to make certain that the correct patient was getting discharged.

In 2013, Jackson was involved in an incident where an incorrect patient was discharged because nobody checked the patient’s ID band. Jackson admitted the mistake but stated that she was acting on direction from a nurse. Three days later, concluding that Jackson’s error was a “major infraction,” the hospital fired the technician.

This termination was the basis for Jackson’s suit. Although acknowledging that her mistake was a firable offense, the technician argued that the hospital actually terminated her employment because she was a woman. She contended that the hospital preferred male MHTs and used the incident to eliminate her, the only woman among 14 MHTs. To support this position, Jackson offered evidence of two male MHTs who committed similarly serious offenses and were disciplined less severely. Ronald Duncan walked the wrong patient out of the center without checking the patient’s ID band. Lester Little was disciplined for failing to search a patient properly, which allowed the patient to bring three knives into the center. Neither man was fired.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital. Duncan’s and Little’s transgressions were not sufficiently similar to Jackson’s to create an inference that her different discipline was caused by discrimination. Jackson successfully appealed this ruling. The 6th Circuit explained that, in disparate-discipline-as-proof-of-discrimination cases like Jackson’s, the law does not require the employee to prove that the incidents she uses as comparison points are identical to her own; they only need to be “of comparable seriousness.”

The evidence reflected that Jackson had met this “comparable seriousness” standard, according to the appeals court. Duncan’s misstep was almost identical to Jackson’s. Both employees escorted incorrect patients out of the center after failing to check the patients’ wristbands. The hospital declared both errors to be “major infractions.” Little’s mistake was less factually identical, but the employer cited him for a major infraction that violated the same two sections of its discipline code that it used in firing Jackson.

Had the employer sufficiently proved that the consequences of Jackson’s error were more grave, its case might have still succeeded, as that variance could have justified the different discipline. However, in this case, the consequences of Jackson and Duncan’s missteps were similar. While Jackson’s incorrectly discharged patient was suicidal, Duncan’s patient required crutches but was discharged without them. Both wrongly discharged patients could have suffered serious injury or death, so the consequences of the two errors were not different enough to warrant the significant difference between Duncan’s discipline and Jackson’s. Even though the courts often try to avoid second-guessing the disciplinary decisions of employers, the similarity of the errors and differences in discipline were just too significant to allow the employer to obtain summary judgment.

Whether you’re an employee or an employer, there’s a great deal that goes into constructing a winning case in a sex discrimination matter. Experienced legal counsel can help you collect your evidence and navigate the court system more effectively. The diligent Tennessee employment law attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have many years of experience handling sex discrimination cases, on behalf of both employers and employees, and can help you make your best argument to the court.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Sixth Circuit Ruling Raises Warning to Tennessee Employers When it Comes to Handing out Disparate Discipline, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Feb. 3, 2016

11th Circuit Rules that Replacing an Employee in His 40s with Another in His 40s Can Still Possibly Be Age Discrimination, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 6, 2016

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