The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Revives a White Worker’s Race Discrimination Case Following Her Termination by a Black Manager

When people hear the word “discrimination,” they may often associate it with historically marginalized groups, like people of color, women, LGBT+ people, and so forth. The law, however, is broader than that. Federal anti-discrimination statutes protect people who encounter discrimination based on protected characteristics, regardless of whether or not they were members of a historical minority/disadvantaged group. Even if you’re male, White, American, or “straight,” you still have the possibility of pursuing – and winning – a federal discrimination lawsuit. So, if you’ve endured this sort of harm, don’t hesitate to contact an experienced Atlanta employment discrimination lawyer to discuss your legal options.

A federal race discrimination case that originated in neighboring Alabama exemplifies this point. T.P., a White woman, worked for a cabinet manufacturer inspecting and repairing cabinets. As workloads increased, so did employee hours. Several employees complained about the long hours, including T.P. and two of her Black colleagues. Allegedly, the operations manager, who also was Black, fired T.P. for complaining but issued no discipline to the two Black workers who complained. According to the employer, T.P. was fired for “insubordination.”

That treatment served as the basis for T.P.’s federal race discrimination lawsuit under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. In addition to the complaining incident, T.P. had other alleged evidence of racially disparate treatment. She provided the court with a set of the employer’s disciplinary records, which included 12 circumstances where employees of color were cited for insubordination but were not fired. At least three of those 12 were subordinates of the same operations manager who fired T.P.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded these allegations and T.P.’s supporting proof were enough to entitle the woman to a trial.

In federal discrimination litigation, a “single-motive theory” of discrimination refers to a case where the discriminatory impetus was allegedly the “but-for” cause of the worker’s mistreatment. (“Mixed-motive” refers to cases where discrimination is a motivating factor, but not the sole one.)

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, the first step in any single-motive discrimination case is for the worker to demonstrate a “prima facie” case of discrimination. In this context, that means satisfying four elements:

  1. that she belonged to a protected class,
  2. that she was subjected to an adverse employment action,
  3. that she was qualified to perform the job she held, and
  4. that her “employer treated similarly situated employees outside her class more favorably.”

Demonstrating Disparate Treatment

The only element in dispute in this case was the last. Satisfying this fourth element generally involves providing the court with “comparators,” or similarly situated coworkers who were outside the plaintiff’s protected class and whom the employer treated more favorably. T.P. identified more than a dozen colleagues of color who complained about hours or otherwise engaged in insubordination but allegedly were treated more favorably.

As an alternative to showing that the employer treated other workers outside a stated protected group more favorably, a worker may also meet this fourth element by showing that the employer replaced her with someone outside her protected group. In T.P.’s case, she had evidence that the employer replaced her with a person of color.

Once the worker clears this first step, the employer assumes the burden of giving the court a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. In this case, the cabinet factory asserted that the manager fired T.P. for insubordination in violation of workplace rules.

Proving Pretext 

After the employer meets its burden, the onus shifts back to the worker to show that the employer’s stated reason was merely a pretext for discrimination. That means casting “sufficient doubt on the [employer’s] proffered nondiscriminatory reasons to permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that [they] were not what actually motivated its conduct.” In T.P.’s case, the employer alleged that it fired her for repeatedly calling the manager “stupid” and “criticizing his leadership” after he suspended her for a weekend. T.P. alleged that she never did those things. If a jury believed her over the employer, then it would also likely conclude that the employer’s assertion of insubordination was false and that T.P. was fired for some other reason, potentially discriminatory in nature.

T.P.’s case is instructive to both workers and employers. For employers, it is a strong reminder of the risks of sudden, abrupt terminations of employees. These decisions may involve employees without long histories of workplace deficiencies and discipline. The absence of careful documentation supporting the employer’s reason for its action may weaken its position and enhance the worker’s opportunity to argue that the true motivation for the employer’s action was an illegal one.

The knowledgeable Atlanta race discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert have the in-depth knowledge of Title VII, Section 1981, and other workplace discrimination laws necessary to put forward a powerful case on your behalf. Whether you’re the employer or the employee, you can rely on our experience, gained from helping countless other workers and employers, to be an essential asset to your case. Contact us today at 404-873-8048 or through this website to schedule a consultation.

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