In a pair of recent 7th Circuit cases, employee claims of racial discrimination failed to survive the summary judgment phase. In both cases, Peers v. Village of Hazel Crest and Huang v. Continental Casualty Company, employees claimed that their employer discriminated against them due to their race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As the two recent cases demonstrate, it can be difficult for employers to determine when an action constitutes discrimination.
There are two methods an employee may use to prevail on a claim of discrimination, the direct method and the indirect method. Under the direct method, a plaintiff must provide evidence that absent the impermissible consideration of race, he or she would have received the promotion. Under the indirect method, the plaintiff must only show that he or she was treated differently than someone similarly situated outside their protected class. However, under the indirect method, even if the plaintiff meets his or her burden, an employer may offer non-discriminatory reasons for the discharge which shifts the burden back to the employee to prove the employer’s reasons are pretextual.
In Peers, two white police sergeants claimed that a promotion to deputy chief, which they both desired, was given to a less qualified black officer due to the officer’s race. While there was significant evidence that race played a part in awarding the promotion, the plaintiffs failed under the direct method because of a lack of evidence that either of them would have received the promotion had race not been a factor in the decision. The plaintiffs similarly failed under the indirect method because they were unable to show that the employer’s proffered reasons for not promoting them, i.e., lack of leadership and volatile character, were untrue.
In Huang, a software engineer claimed his former employer discriminated against him because he is Chinese. Huang’s employer claims it fired Huang due to his refusal to comply with his division’s requirement that he be on-call 24 hours a day every fourth weekend. Upon Huang’s continued lack of compliance, he was fired. Huang’s claims were unable to survive summary judgment because he could not identify a non-Chinese employee who refused a comparable work assignment but was not fired.
These cases highlight the high burden placed on employees to succeed on a claim of discrimination. Regardless of whether race was considered in the employment decision, such as in Peers, or if a disgruntled employee brings a frivolous claim such as in Huang, it is important for employers to understand the circumstances under which they do and do not open themselves up to liability.