Abdullahi v. Prada USA, No. 07-2489 (7th Cir. Mar. 21, 2008); Rweyemamu v. Cote, No. 06-1041 (2d Cir. Mar. 21, 2008)

| Mar 21, 2008 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

The Seventh Circuit in Abdullahi v. Prada USA, No. 07-2489 (7th Cir. Mar. 21, 2008) (attached), issued a decision only made necessary by the district court’s utter failure to comprehend two Supreme Court precedents:  Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, 481 U.S. 604 (1987) (defining “race” under section 1981 as encompassing, in some instances, nationality), and Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337 (1997) (recognizing post-employment retaliation). 

A pro se plaintiff, using a court-provided form discrimination complaint, checked “national origin” as a basis of discrimination but not “race.” The district court held that her complaint therefore failed to state a claim of “race” discrimination, thus dismissing the complaint on timeliness grounds.  The employee’s Title VII claims apparently had expired, though a section 1981 claim would have survived under a four-year limitations period.  Judge Posner was constrained to point out (in a four-page decision) that under Saint Francis, the “plaintiff in [that] case was an Iraqi, rather than a native of the Arabian peninsula, so it was a reasonable inference that if he was discriminated against for being ‘born an Arab. the source of the discrimination was not his national origin but his ethnicity, which the Court equated to race.”  (The plaintiff here was Iranian.)  The plaintiff was thus entitled to proceed on her section 1981 theory and dismissal was reversed. 

Moreover, the district court dismissed a post-employment retaliation claim (concerning ugly rumors supposedly being spread about the plaintiff), but the Seventh Circuit likewise reversed. “The judge dismissed it because when the plaintiff filed the charge with the EEOC that (she contends) precipitated the retaliation, she was no longer employed by Prada. She argues that Prada retaliated by spreading derogatory rumors about her. The judge was wrong to think that such a retaliation claim is not actionable under Title VII. Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337 (1997).”

Meanwhile, in Rweyemamu v. Cote, No. 06-1041 (2d Cir. Mar. 21, 2008), the Second Circuit reconsiders the “ministerial exception” implied by courts into federal EEO law, immunizing religious institutions from discrimination suits by individuals engaged in liturgy or propagation of the faith by way of the First Amendment.  This exception — recognized in one form or other by every circuit to consider the issue — recently took a strange turn in the Second Circuit when a panel held in Hankins v. Lyght, 441 F.3d 96, 99 (2d Cir. 2006), that Congress under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., amended the nation’s EEO laws (there, the ADEA) by implication and superceded the judicially-created immunity.  Hankins and the present case both concerned clergymen who contended that their employers discriminated against them.  For Father Justinian Rweyemamu of the Norwich, Connecticut diocese, his suit claimed that he’d not been allowed to advance because of his race.

A different panel of the Second Circuit went a long way to suggest that Hankins not merely wrongly decided, but an stain upon the law itself.  And yet, it was spared from having to entirely repudiate the precedent by an odd quirk:  in this case, in contrast to Hankins, the defendant specifically disavowed any reliance on RFRA.  Thus able to crawl out of reconciling Hankins with a hundred-year history of federal judicial avoidance of ecclesiastical disputes, the court held that application of Title VII to resolve a dispute between a priest and his diocese would be unconstitutional:  “the ministerial exception cannot be ascribed solely to judicial self-abnegation. It is also required by the Constitution. This must be so because the presumptively appropriate remedy in a Title VII action is reinstatement, but it would surely be unconstitutional under the First Amendment to order the Catholic Church to reinstate, for example, a priest whose employment the Church had terminated on account of his excommunication based on a violation of core Catholic doctrine.”  (Citations omitted)


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