In this week's Alabama Law Weekly Update, we review two decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The first addresses a claim of race-based employment discrimination and the second addresses a claim of sex-based employment discrimination.

Smith v. Mobile Shipbuilding & Repair, Inc., et al., Case No. 16-10321 (11th Cir. October 4, 2016) (Employee failed to present sufficient evidence to establish a claim of race-based discrimination).

T. Smith worked for Mobile Shipbuilding & Repair, Inc. (MSR) as a welder/fitter for four and a half years, but was fired in October 2014. Smith filed a lawsuit against MSR claiming, among other things, that he was fired because of his race. After Smith filed the lawsuit, MSR asked the trial court to grant summary judgment in its favor, arguing and presenting evidence that the reason for Smith's termination was substandard job performance, not his race. Smith opposed this request, but did not present any evidence to rebut the evidence presented by MSR. The trial court found in MSR's favor. Smith appealed that decision.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit explained that Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of, among other things, race. To succeed on such a claim when the employee lacks direct evidence of discrimination, the employee must first present evidence of unlawful discrimination sufficient to establish a “prima facie” case of discrimination. If the employer can then respond with a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the challenged employment action, the employee must show that this stated reason is pretextual. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court's decision to grant summary judgment in favor of MSR because it found that Smith had failed to present evidence establishing his claim and failed to present evidence rebutting the stated reason for his termination-substandard job performance. As a result, the employer's ability to present unrebutted evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Smith's termination resulted in its successful defense of the lawsuit.

Crisman v. Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees, Case No. 15-14012 (11th Cir. October 3, 2016) (Employee failed to establish claim for sex-based employment discrimination).

M. Crisman worked for Florida Atlantic University (FAU) from 1986 until July 2012, when her position was eliminated as part of a reduction-in-force (RIF). Crisman filed a lawsuit against the FAU Board of Trustees in which she alleged, among other things, that she was discriminated against illegally on the basis of, among other things, her sex. The trial court determined that the FAU Board of Trustees was entitled to summary judgment on Crisman's sex discrimination claim, finding that Crisman could not establish that she was qualified for another position at FAU at the time she was terminated under the RIF. Crisman appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit explained that, like race discrimination, Title VII prohibits employers from discharging or otherwise discriminating against an employee on the basis of sex. Similar to the race-based discrimination claim addressed above, if an employee lacks direct evidence of sex-based discrimination, the employee may nevertheless succeed on a sex-based discrimination claim if she can establish a prima facie case of discrimination and, if the employer can then respond with evidence showing a legitimate reason for the adverse employment action, show the employer's stated reason is a mere pretext. When an employee is terminated as part of a RIF, she may establish her prima facie case, in part, by showing that “she was qualified to assume another position at the time of her termination.” The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court's decision to grant summary judgment to the FAU Board of Trustees, in part, because Crisman had failed to show “she was qualified to assume another position available at FAU at the time of her termination.” As a result, Crisman could not overcome the first hurdle in successfully pursuing her sex-based discrimination claim and the FAU Board of Trustees prevailed.