Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

4th Circuit Alters 4th Prong of Prima Facie Case

It's not a good sign when you are seeking affirmation of the lower court and the appeals court begins by admitting its decision turns on a newly recognized theory -- more specifically here the Court held:
Because the district court did not consider whether Miles’ case falls within the different decision maker exception to the fourth prong of the Title VII prima facie case that we recognize today, we vacate the grant of summary judgment with respect to Miles’ sex and pregnancy discrimination claims.
The existing fourth prong required that after the termination "the position remained open or was filled by similarly qualified applicants outside the protected class." Here, the terminated female plaintiff was replaced by another female. Applying what appeared to be settled 4th Circuit law, the district court granted summary judgment. But in Miles v. Dell, Inc.. (4th Cir. 11/22/05) [pdf] the Court adopted an alternative method of satisfying the fourth prong:
in cases where the plaintiff can show that the firing and replacement hiring decisions were made by different decisionmakers, the plaintiff can make out a prima facie case without showing replacement by someone outside the protected class.
The facts arguably supported the new standard as plaintiff offered testimony that the person who had fired Miles, wanted to hire a male replacement but had been overruled by his superiors who required the position filled by another female. All is not totally lost for Dell on this issue as the Court sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether Miles had made a sufficient factual showing to survive even under the new standard.

There were two other claims - pregnancy and retaliation. Miles fared even better on the pregnancy claim as the Court rejected the trial court's reliance on the fact that plaintiff was terminated more than a year after she had delivered her baby. Miles was helped in part by evidence her supervisor had wanted to terminate her while she was pregnant, but had been overruled by human resources. That plus evidence that he tried to increase her quotas while she was out on maternity leave were enough to overcome any barrier raised by the timing gap.

Dell did salvage the summary judgment on the retaliation claim. Plaintiff had not checked the retaliation box on her charge, nor was it mentioned in the narrative aspect. While her lawyer did write a letter specifically mentioning retaliation 5 months after the charge was filed, the Court specifically held that was not sufficient.

Although it may not be the case, the facts as relayed by the Court make it appear that a manager who was possibly making discriminatory decisions was appropriately reigned in by upper management and human resources -- but that was not enough.

When preliminary decisions that are not carried out are enough to hold an employer liable, life just got more difficult.

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