Federal Employment Law Update- Title VII

Welcome everyone to your Federal Employment Law Update!  Today’s case reminds us of a few things:  1) random remarks that do not fit together will create a circumstantial evidence case of race discrimination; and 2) courts will generally find any basis to avoid considering an attorney’s fee claim if the opportunity presents itself!

In Idemudia v. JP Morgan Chase, 2011 WL 3648219 (6th Cir. Aug. 18, 2011), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in Chase’s favor on Plaintiff’s Title VII claim for race and national origin discrimination. 

Plaintiff, of Nigerian descent, started with Chase as a bank teller in 1996 and by 2007, worked himself up to a branch manager position, where he reported to a white District Manager.  Just a month into his promotion, Plaintiff experienced various problems at the bank, including two audit reports stating that the branch “needs work,” another incident where the branch was fined $500 after an employee’s child pulled the fire alarm, and finally on the same date the alarm was pulled, a policy violation regarding the misplacement of customer deposits.  Plaintiff was not at the branch on this controversial date, but was suspended due to poor training and oversight over the remainder of his staff.   

Plaintiff was instructed to create branch action plans and to personally undergo management training.  Plaintiff scoffed at the idea of the branch management plans and later lied to his supervisor about having completed the training.  Following this incident, Plaintiff was asked to interview for a lower position in the company.  When he refused, he was given the option of resigning, which he declined.  He was then terminated.   He was replaced by a white woman.

In his case, Plaintiff raised two instances of racially insensitive comments, one from a subordinate and one from a supervisor on separate unrelated occasions.  The more imporant comment, from the supervisor, was the less egregious of the two, stating that he once dated an African-American but that she broke up with him because he was white. 

After rejecting Plaintiff’s claim that the dating anecdote represented “direct evidence” of discrimination, the court applied the McDonnell Douglas framework for circumstantial evidence.  Since he was replaced by someone outside his protected class, he met the lenient standard for a prima facie case.  However, after JP Morgan set forth its reasons for terminating him, Plaintiff could not string together enough circumstantial evidence to convince the appellate court that a reasonable factfinder could determine that race was the real reason for his termination.   Accordingly, summary judgment was affirmed. 

Chase moved for its attorneys fees, which Title VII permits for the defense if the matter is considered frivolous.  However, the Court declined to even consider the motion for a silly procedural reason.  Frankly, this did not seem to be the type of “frivolous” case warranted fees to the defense, but it is still humorous how far the courts will go to avoid the issue of fees against an employment claimant.  More importantly, this case is emblematic of the fact that one or two random comments involving race (or any other protected class) does not necessarily trigger an employment discrimination claim. 

Explore posts in the same categories: Federal Employment Law Updates

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