The U.S. Supreme Court will consider under what circumstances an employer may be liable under federal anti-discrimination laws based on a subordinate’s discriminatory animus when the person who actually made the adverse employment decision harbored no discriminatory motive toward the impacted employee. In BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Los Angeles v. EEOC, Pat Edgar fired Stephen Peters from his job as a merchandiser at the BCI Coca-Cola bottling facility in Albuquerque, N.M. At the time, she had no idea Peters was black.
Cesar Grado, Peters’ manager, had asked Peters to work on his day off. Peters refused and was told by Grado that his refusal would be considered insubordination. Peters called in sick with a sinus infection and received permission from another supervisor to stay home. Grado reported to Edgar that Peters had refused to work and then called in sick, though he did not make any specific recommendation to fire Peters. Peters was fired for insubordination after calling in sick. The EEOC sued on Peters’ behalf, claiming that Grado harbored a bias against black employees. The District Court dismissed the case, finding that the EEOC had not demonstrated that Grado’s bias had a significant influence on Edgar’s decision to fire Peters, especially given that Grado had never made any specific recommendations as to what Edgar should do.
EEOC appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed the District Court’s summary judgment, allowing the case to go to trial. The Circuit Court found that Grado’s actions led to the termination decision and that Edgar’s independent investigation was not sufficient to shield the company from subordinate bias liability.
In citing a “longstanding expressly acknowledged circuit split” on the standard for finding subordinate bias liability, BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Los Angeles petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision. The company argued that “[i]n the realities of today’s workplace, ultimate decisions are frequently made by decision makers who are at some level removed from employees and who must rely to varying degrees on information received from subordinates.” It also contended that assigning the ultimate decision to a human resource professional was a deterrent against discrimination, as it provides for consistent application of policies and neutrality in decision making.