In Abrams v. Dep’t of Public Safety, the Second Circuit revived a Connecticut state trooper’s claim that he was prohibited from joining an investigative unit because of his race, relying on a supervisor’s comment that he “did not fit in.”
Plaintiff Abrams, a black male who joined the Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) in 1986, alleged discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for failing to transfer him to the Major Crimes Van—the unit that handles homicides and is regarded as an elite group with the top troopers.
After joining DPS, Abrams worked his way up to detective—a position that handles all major crimes except homicides. Abrams first applied to a position in the Van in 1998, but was denied a position several times for reasons including a history of poor performance evaluations in areas such as written reports, knowledge of the penal code, and criminal investigations. Abrams demonstrated improvement in these areas, but eventually was passed over for the Van position despite having greater seniority and more training than successful white Van applicants.
In 2007, a Van position became available and Abrams’s longtime supervisor recommended him. A selection committee member, however, chose a different candidate whom he said was “a better fit” for the Van team. Ultimately, Abrams was transferred to the Casino Unit, where the work largely consisted of background checks and less desirable work.
The district court awarded summary judgment to DPS on Abrams’s discrimination claim. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, however, vacated the decision, reasoning that the “better fit” comment may be enough to prove that DPS’s explanation for denying Abrams a position in the Van is a pretext for race discrimination. The court explained that further analysis is needed on whether the comment was racially motivated. The court also stated that, while the “better fit” comment may not necessarily have been about race and would not have been enough for Abrams’s claim to survive summary judgment absent other evidence of discrimination, DPS’s non-discriminatory reasons for not selecting Abrams—his poor writing and lack of college education—were questionable.
In light of this decision, employers are advised to clearly articulate the reasons for employment decisions. A comment such as “better fit” may not, by itself, prove discrimination, but it can create a factual issue and foreclose the possibility of summary judgment.