DIAZ v. KRAFT FOODS GLOBAL (August 8, 2011)

Jose Diaz, Ramon Peña, and Alberto Robles were all Kraft Foods employees in 2008. Diaz and Peña were hourly employees in the shipping department. Robles was a salaried senior technician in the support services department. They all reported to the same supervisor -- Peter Michalec. Diaz and Peña complained that Michalec discriminated against Hispanics. He assigned them the hardest tasks under the most difficult conditions and scrutinized their work much more closely than non-Hispanics. They also identified a number of discriminatory remarks he allegedly made. In late 2008, Kraft announced plans to outsource its shipping department. Diaz and Peña would lose their jobs. At about the same time, Kraft posted openings for two technician and five sanitation positions. Plaintiffs never made it on the list of interested candidates for the technician position. They claim they were not allowed to apply -- Michalec asserts they the simply failed to apply. Kraft hired two non-Hispanics for those positions. Diaz and Peña were on the list for the sanitation positions. Kraft decided to fill those positions based on seniority and neither Diaz nor Peña were selected. Robles has a different complaint. He received the salary of grade 2 employee but asserts that his position is a grade 3 position. Kraft responds that his position is a grade 2 position. Kraft concedes that two other employees in the same position are paid at a higher rate but only because they were transferred from a higher paying position and the company's policy is to allow them to retain their salaries for two years. Plaintiffs brought suit against Kraft under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Judge Guzman (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the defendants. Plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Kanne, Wood, and Sykes affirmed with respect to Robles but reversed and remanded with respect to Diaz and Peña. The Court first addressed the Diaz and Peña claims. Those plaintiffs presented their case under the direct method of proof. The Court disagreed with the district court's application of an inverted “similarly situated employee" approach. The district court had allowed the employer to satisfy its burden by identifying a person within the protected class who was not discriminated against. The fact that Michalec treated another Hispanic well might tend to negate discrimination, but is not enough to meet the employer's burden. The Court noted Michalec's treatment of Diaz and Peña by assigning disfavored tasks, Michalec's role in the hiring processes, and evidence that Michalec told another employee that he chose one candidate because he was white. The Court concluded that there was enough evidence to submit the question of ethnic bias to a jury. The Court turned to the Robles claim. It first noted that the evidence relied on by Diaz and Peña had no bearing on the claim since Robles’ claim arose months earlier. Although the record contained evidence of some insensitive remarks made by Michalec, the Court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to create a triable issue of ethnic bias under the direct method. Under the indirect method, the Court concluded that the higher paid colleagues were not similarly situated because of the company's policy to allow employees to retain a higher salary after a transfer to a lower-paying job.