Law School Case Brief
Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta - 2 F.3d 1112 (11th Cir. 1993)
Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), a moving party is entitled to summary judgment if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The substantive law applicable to the case determines which facts are material. The district court should resolve all reasonable doubts about the facts in favor of the non-movant, and draw all justifiable inferences in his or her favor.
Plaintiffs Walter Fitzpatrick and several other African-American firefighters were employed by Atlanta Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Fire Services ("Department"). Plaintiffs suffered from a medical condition that prevented them from shaving their faces. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal district court against defendant City of Atlanta ("City") challenging the Department's regulation that required all firefighters to be clean-shaven. They alleged that the "no-beard" rule had a discriminatory disparate impact on African-Americans in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e et seq. Moreover, plaintiffs asserted that the no-beard rule was adopted for racially discriminatory reasons in violation of Title VII, and that it discriminated against the handicapped in violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C.S. § 794(a). The City defended the policy, contending that the respirator masks used by firefighters cannot safely be worn by bearded men. The district court granted summary judgment for the City. Plaintiffs appealed.
(1) Was the challenged action justifiable? (2) Did plaintiffs fail to discredit the proffered justification of the City, thereby warranting the grant of summary judgment in favor of the City?
(1) Yes; (2) Yes.
The court of appeals affirmed the district court's judgment. The court held that business necessity justified the challenged action, as it was shown, by expert testimony, that the no-beard rule was required to protect firefighters from health and safety risks. The court, however, noted that even after a showing of that justification, a plaintiff could still overcome a proffered business necessity defense by demonstrating that there existed alternative policies with lesser discriminatory effects that were comparably as effective at serving the employer's identified business needs. In the case at bar, plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of creating a genuine issue as to the viability of either of two less discriminatory alternatives they proposed.
As to the second issue, the court noted that where a plaintiff, lacking direct evidence of discrimination, proceeded under the McDonnell Douglas-Burdine framework, the defendant was entitled to prevail where: (1) it came forward with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory explanation for the challenged employment action, and; (2) the plaintiff failed to discredit the proffered justification or to show that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the challenged action. Assuming arguendo that plaintiffs succeeded in making out a prima facie case of disparate treatment, the City adduced evidence showing that at trial it would readily be able to carry its light burden of coming forward with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason—namely, safety— for the no-beard rule. The City adduced evidence that safety considerations required firefighters to be clean-shaven, and plaintiffs did not adduce evidence sufficient to call that contention into question. Plaintiffs invoked only one piece of evidence in their attempt to undermine the credibility of the proffered safety justification, and it was insufficient to create a genuine issue as to the availability of an adequate reasonable accommodation. Thus, the City was entitled to summary judgment.
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