Why it matters

Three-year-old Facebook posts were insufficient to base a racial discrimination claim upon, a North Carolina federal court has ruled, dismissing a Title VII action. Thomas Jerome Neal worked as a janitor at a Ford dealership. When a new general manager started in May 2016, Neal looked up his Facebook page and found posts he considered to be racist. The new general manager changed the janitorial work schedule and reassigned supervisory responsibilities to a Caucasian employee before outsourcing the entire janitorial department to a third party. Neal was offered a transfer but resigned soon after. He also filed a lawsuit alleging violations of Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The dealership moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion, finding that the Facebook posts did not provide evidence of race discrimination. Neal never observed the general manager making any racially inappropriate comments at the dealership, the court said, and the posts were dated three years prior to the decision to outsource the janitorial department.

Detailed discussion

Thomas Jerome Neal, a 45-year-old African-American male, was hired by Green Ford in August 2014 to work in its auto detailing department. One year later, he was moved to the janitorial department by an African-American general manager (GM), where he was supervised by an African-American male.

In 2016, a new Caucasian GM took over the dealership. Neal and other employees looked up his Facebook page and found posts that Neal considered racist and derogatory, including statements critical of President Barack Obama, a quote attributed to Vladimir Putin stating that Russia does not need minorities, anti-Muslim sentiments and a quote from comedian Jay Leno that “Over a million people in California lost their health coverage. Some are so angry … they’re going back to Mexico.”

Once the new GM started work, he quickly restructured the janitorial department hours and work schedule, demoting the African-American supervisor and assigning a Caucasian male to oversee the workers. Not long after, the new GM decided to eliminate the janitorial department and outsource the work as a cost-saving measure.

Neal’s position was eliminated, and he was offered a position in the detailing department, where he was paid less. He asked why he was not considered for “other predominantly Caucasian departments,” and voluntarily resigned. He filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging race and age discrimination and then filed suit against the dealership.

Green Ford moved for summary judgment. Even applying a liberal construction to Neal’s pro se claims, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder granted the motion.

To support his claim of racial discrimination, Neal relied heavily upon the new GM’s Facebook posts. “However, regardless of any racial animus that may be reflected by them, there is no showing that the posts had any bearing on any decision affecting Neal’s employment,” the court said. “The posts are dated 2013, predating the decision to outsource the janitorial work and reassign Neal to the detail department by two or more years, and there is no showing of any link between the posts and [the GM’s] decision in this regard. There is also no evidence that [the GM] ever talked about the posts or had similar posts at Green Ford.”

Further, Neal never observed the new GM make any racially inappropriate comment at work. “Therefore, the Facebook posts are insufficient direct or indirect evidence of racial discrimination sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact,” the court wrote.

As for the decision to outsource the janitorial department, the court found no inference of discrimination simply because the department was staffed by two African-American employees. Neal failed to show that his position was filled by someone not in the protected class, the employer pointed out, and had no evidence that Green Ford knew of or had any control over the race of the outsourced workers.

Nor could Neal overcome the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action: the elimination and outsourcing of the janitorial department as a cost-cutting measure for the dealership. Neal argued the dealership could have cut costs in other departments with higher salaries, but offered no evidence to support his position and failed to create a genuine dispute of material fact, the court said.

As for the plaintiff’s age discrimination claims, he again lacked evidence about the characteristics of the workers in the outsourced company that replaced him and failed to establish that he was replaced by a substantially younger individual. Also, the dealership again pointed to cost savings as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the elimination of the janitorial department, the court noted.

Judge Schroeder similarly determined the evidence did not back up Neal’s retaliation or hostile work environment claims, granting summary judgment in favor of Green Ford and dismissing the case.

To read the opinion and order in Neal v. Green Ford, LLC, click here.