Sixth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Race Discrimination Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which hears appeals from U.S. district courts in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) issued a plaintiff-friendly opinion in a race discrimination case on May 7, 2015.

In Wheat v. Fifth Third Bank, No.13-4199 (6th Cir., May 7, 2015), the plaintiff, an African-American, initiated a verbal confrontation with a Caucasian co-worker. Their discussion ended when plaintiff went to his desk but the co-worker soon approached plaintiff and reignited the argument. They went to a hallway, argued back and forth and, according to plaintiff’s deposition testimony, the co-worker swatted his arm as he turned to return to his desk. Plaintiff admitted calling his co-worker a “bitch” numerous times. The co-worker admitted telling plaintiff that plaintiff did not know what the co-worker was capable of doing. A human resources representative met with plaintiff first. Plaintiff was not entirely cooperative during the interview but the record contained disputed facts and inferences as to what occurred. The co-worker was then interviewed. He essentially said he thought the two simply were having a bad day. Both employees were sent home but plaintiff was told not to report to work until notified. The bank terminated plaintiff for violating its workplace violence and anti-harassment policies, making a threat of physical violence, violating the bank’s “core values.” The bank issued discipline to the co-worker but did not terminate him. Plaintiff filed an administrative charge with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. Upon receiving the charge the bank reopened its investigation and ultimately decided to terminate the co-worker as well.

The value of this case to plaintiff’s counsel is the court’s discussion of how summary judgment is supposed to work in the familiar McDonnell Douglas indirect evidence discrimination case. Gratifying in particular is the court’s citation to Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods.,Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000), with respect to the third step of the McDonnell Douglas concerning pretext. Quoting Reeves the court said:

However, the burden on the defendant at this stage of the McDonnell Douglas analysis is not to prove the existence of a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Rather, as the Supreme Court has instructed, “This burden is one of production, not persuasion; it ‘can involve no credibility assessment.’” (Quoting St. Mary’sHonor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 509 (1993)).

Our analysis of the pretextual nature of the proffered justifications for Fifth Third’s employment decision again must be overlaid with an understanding of the summary-judgment principles at play. In other words, at this preliminary stage of the litigation, Wheat need only identify genuine disputes of fact regarding the legitimacy of the defendant’s stated reasons in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment. We conclude that the plaintiff has met that burden.

The Wheat case will be cited often by discrimination plaintiffs in cases in this circuit. It is without question a useful tool in overcoming summary judgment motions by employers and getting cases to trial.

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