The U.S. Supreme Court in recent terms has encouraged federal courts to weed out supposedly meritless civil claims by use of the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Yet the Seventh Circuit reaffirms this week that this method is often not appropriate for Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims. The panel vacates and remands dismissal of a Title VII complaint, holding that the district court was too quick to demand facts and evidence in support of the class before discovery commenced. The court also reverses a decision holding that some of the claims were allegedly preempted by the Railway Labor Act.
Racial coding continues in the workplace today, the jotting of surreptitious entries on job applications to avoid hiring disfavored minorities. And in this case, even when the evidence was staring the trial judge in the face - plaintiff's unsuccessful application said "black" in handwriting, and no witness from the employer offered an explanation why - the judge still found that there was an innocent explanation for it. The Seventh Circuit tosses a bench verdict in favor of the employer, decreeing that the trial judge must reconsider evidence that clearly favored the employee's claim of race discrimination.
In a non-precedential opinion that may nevertheless be important to litigators, a Fifth Circuit panel splits three ways on whether an employee must continue to defend her Title VII prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas rubric after the employer presents a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for an employee's termination. The courts continue to disagree on this issue even decades after the Supreme Court first framed-out this method of proof.
A Sixth Circuit case addresses the occasional issue of whether Title VII supports "sex-plus" claims - in this case, a claim that she suffered discrimination specifically as an African-American woman. The panel agrees that such a claim can be made, and that the employee may point to treatment of non-African-American women as comparable employees. The case also goes to show the importance of email traffic in discrimination cases.
Often, employees must fight and fight again to enforce their rights. A woman denied employment as a firefighter in 2001 sued to corps for sex discrimination in 2005. Four years later, she obtained a settlement to employ her as a "transitory" firefighter until a slot opened up in the training academy. But she was compelled to sue once again when her sergeant allegedly harassed her in retaliation for bringing the original complaint. The First Circuit holds that she states a claim for violation of the Title VII anti-retaliation section 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).
Can a job transfer originally requested by an employee constitute an "adverse employment action" (for purposes of Title VII, the ADEA and § 1983)? The Sixth Circuit panel in this case split over the issue, 2-1. The panel majority holds, in reversing summary judgment on this issue, that such a transfer may be "adverse" to the employee when the terms and conditions of the transfer are inferior to what the employee originally sought.
The Seventh Circuit reverses summary judgment in a case involving allegations of racially discriminatory (and retaliatory) treatment of two African American cocktail servers at a Mississippi River casino. The court holds that discrimination in table assignments is an adverse employment action under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, because it cut into the servers' tip income.
The Fifth Circuit, in a 10-6 en banc decision, affirms a jury verdict in favor of the government on a male iron worker's claim that he was sexually harassed by a male supervisor on a nearly-daily basis at his worksite, the Twin Spans bridges between New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana. The full court considers what an employee must prove to establish that a hostile-work-environment is "because . . . of sex," and whether the incident here was severe or pervasive. Meanwhile, the six dissenters between them contribute four separate opinions, lashing out at every aspect of the majority's interpretation of the record and Title VII law.
When does a human-resources executive truly speak for the corporation? This oft-ignored, yet critically important question occupies this Eleventh Circuit decision today, which remands a Title VII national-origin case to the district court for an evidentiary ruling on this issue. The lower court must now rule whether a remark allegedly made by the employer's HR director - that the Korean management of the company "refused to even consider American candidates" for an assistant accounting manager vacancy - may be admitted as evidence. One judge files a partially dissenting opinion on the remand.
I think we have the right sign for the Seventh Circuit this week. The same day that the court interred the rule against using an employee's "self-serving" testimony to resist summary judgment in employment-discrimination cases, another panel of the same court helps correct a lingering misunderstanding about what it means for an employee to use a "mosaic" of circumstantial evidence under Title VII - and also backs off a bit from a strict direct/indirect framework of proof enforced by that circuit. Such cases may help district courts reach more sensible decisions at the summary judgment stage.