"Protected Class" and the 6th Circuit

"Protected Class" and the 6th Circuit

 In Shazor v. Professional Transit Management, Inc. [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers], the 6th Circuit reversed an award of summary judgment and found that the plaintiff had presented sufficient circumstantial evidence of race and sex discrimination to go to trial. Defendants had argued the plaintiff was terminated for lying to the board of directors. One of the issues was whether the plaintiff had been replaced by someone outside the protected class. The plaintiff was an African American female who was replaced by a Hispanic female.

The court indicated it did not have to review whether summary judgment was appropriate on plaintiff's direct evidence claim because it found plaintiff had presented circumstantial evidence to establish a prima facie case and rebutted the nondiscriminatory reason offered by the defendant. The court stated that it was clear plaintiff was replaced by someone outside of her racial class. With respect to the sex discrimination claim, the court noted that it could not be "untangled" from her race discrimination claim. The two characteristics do not exist in isolation. The court stated, "African American women are subjected to unique stereotypes that neither African American men nor white women must endure.(citation omitted)  And Title VII does not permit plaintiffs to fall between two stools when their claim rests on multiple protected grounds"  The court went on to state that if a female African American plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, a defendant cannot undermine it by showing that white women and African American men received the same treatment. The court stated, "The realities of the workplace, let alone Title VII, will not allow such an artificial approach."

The court rejected the defendants' argument that it was "unwieldy" to ask whether the plaintiff was replaced by someone outside of he class. Defendants argued the standard should be whether similarly situated, non protected individuals were treated better. The court disagreed.

The court considered the defendants' argument that they were still entitled to summary judgment because they had an honest belief that the plaintiff had lied to the board. The court stated that the defense required reasonable reliance based on the specific facts before the employer when it made the decision. The court noted that in the present case, the investigation consisted of speaking with one person. One conversation did not establish sufficient particularized facts about the truth behind the plaintiff's statement, much less her motive. As a result, defendants failed to establish a foundation for the defense to apply.

It will be interesting to see if the lower courts find other protected class combinations also face the unique stereotypes that the 6th Circuit recognized with African American women. Attempts to defeat a prima facie case by arguing the replacement was not outside the protected class will now be more difficult where two bases for discrimination exist. With respect to the "honest belief" defense, employers will need to establish more that a nominal investigation for the establishment of particularized facts. One conversation is obviously not enough.

 For additional Labor and Employment law insights from John Holmquist, visit the Michigan Employment Law Connection.

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