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Media Alerts - Rachells v. Cingular Wireless Employee Services, LLC -- Sixth Circuit
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January 14, 2014
  Rachells v. Cingular Wireless Employee Services, LLC -- Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit clarifies the standard for prima facie discrimination cases when there is no direct evidence of racial discrimination.

Area of Law: Title VII Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e; Ohio Rev. Code § 4112.99

Issue Presented: Did the district court err in finding that the plaintiff's evidence of racial discrimination was insufficient under state and federal law?

Brief Summary: After Cingular Wireless Employee Services acquired AT&T Wireless Services, Inc., Cingular reduced its workforce and fired five of the companies' nine existing National Retail Account Executives. Petitioner, an African-American, was one of the fired executives. He sued Cingular in federal district court, alleging state and federal claims for racial discrimination. Cingular moved for summary judgment, and Petitioner moved to compel or extend discovery. The district court held that Petitioner failed to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination and granted Cingular's motion for summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for Cingular.

Significance: This case clarifies a plaintiff's burden under the burden-shifting analysis for a Title VII or state-law discrimination case.

Extended Summary: In 2004, Cingular acquired AT&T and reduced its workforce. As part of the reduction, Cingular fired five of the nine existing National Retail Account Executives who were employed by the two companies. Petitioner was one of the nine employees vying for the four National Retail Account Executive positions. To identify the most qualified employees for retention, a Cingular employee named Keith Hart evaluated and ranked the nine employees. As part of the evaluation process, Hart reviewed the nine employees' 2004 performance reviews and conducted one-on-one interviews with the nine employees. During the one-on-one interview, Hart rated each employee on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest score, in the following categories: (1) Create Customer Loyalty; (2) Drive for Results; and (3) Use Sound Judgment. After completing his two-part evaluation process, Hart submitted his findings to David Fine, who was the head of Cingular's Cleveland region.

In his 2004 annual review, Hart assigned Petitioner, an African-American, an overall score of 2.6, which was the lowest 2004 performance score received by any of the nine employees. And as part of his two-part evaluation process, Hart assigned Petitioner the following scores: Create Customer Loyalty, 2 out of 5; Drive for Result, 2 out of 5; and Use Sound Judgment, 3 out of 5. These scores gave Petitioner the seventh ranking among the nine candidates, resulting in his firing. Petitioner sued Cingular, alleging claims of racial discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and under Ohio law. Petitioner failed to make timely discovery requests, and in early 2009, Cingular moved for summary judgment on all claims. Petitioner moved to compel discovery or extend the discovery cut-off deadline, but the district court denied the motion without comment, and Petitioner filed a response in opposition to Cingular's motion for summary judgment.

The district court referred Cingular's summary judgment motion to a magistrate judge for findings of fact and conclusions of law, and the magistrate concluded that Petitioner's evidence was insufficient to establish a prima facie case of discrimination and recommended summary judgment for Cingular. The district court overruled Petitioner's timely objections and adopted the magistrate's report and recommendations. Petitioner appealed both the district court's denial of his motion to extend discovery and the district court's decision to grant summary judgment to Cingular.

The Sixth Circuit held that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for Cingular and further held that it did not need to decide whether the district court abused its discretion in denying Petitioner's motion to extend discovery.

The Sixth Circuit explained that to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination when there is no direct evidence of racial discrimination, a plaintiff must meet the four elements of the McDonnell burden-shifting test for inferential proof of discrimination. The elements are (1) whether the plaintiff was a member of a protected class; (2) whether the plaintiff was discharged; (3) whether the plaintiff was qualified for the position; and (4) whether a "similarly situated" non-protected person was treated better than the plaintiff. But when a discrimination claim is based on a firing arising from a work-force reduction, the fourth element is modified, and the plaintiff must "provide 'additional direct, circumstantial, or statistical evidence tending to indicate that the employer singled out the plaintiff for discharge for impermissible reasons.'" If the plaintiff can establish a prima facie case, the defendant may rebut that by showing that there was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment decision. The plaintiff then has a final opportunity to prove his or her case by presenting "'evidence from which a jury could reasonably reject [the defendant's] explanation''' as pretextual.

Although Cingular did not dispute that Petitioner satisfied the first three prima facie elements, Cingular argued that Petitioner failed to present evidence to show that he was "singled out" for impermissible reasons.

As a preliminary matter, the Sixth Circuit disagreed with the magistrate's finding that the other eight candidates formed the comparative group from which to determine whether Petitioner was singled out because of race. The Court reached this conclusion because the AT&T candidates had a different supervisor than the Cingular candidates, and the AT&T candidates' performance evaluations were based on different criteria.

Here, the evidence showed that, unlike the other Cingular candidates, Petitioner was not told what the 2004 interview would entail and was not interviewed regarding the "Drive for Results" component. Although the Sixth Circuit noted that, alone, this evidence might be insufficient to raise a genuine factual dispute, the Court noted that the district court erred in dismissing two other categories of evidence that tended to show racial discrimination: Petitioner's superior qualifications and evidence of a discriminatory atmosphere at Cingular.

As evidence of his superior qualifications, Petitioner pointed to the nine awards and accolades he received between 1999 and 2003. He also presented evidence that his 2002, 2003, and 2004 attainment percentages exceeded those of his Cingular peers and that his 2003 performance review was the highest of any of his co-workers. Although the district court correctly determined that the relevant inquiry is Petitioner's qualification relative to the other Cingular candidates at the time of the performance review, the Sixth Circuit stated that a fact finder could infer that Petitioner's poor scores in the employee-reduction selection process "did not reflect an actual decline in performance, but rather the reviewer's attempt to ensure [Petitioner] was among those discharged in the workplace reduction." Thus, the Court held that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Petitioner had qualifications superior to those of nonprotected candidates who were not discharged.

As evidence of Cingular's discriminatory atmosphere, Petitioner provided the affidavits of two minority retail-store managers in the Cleveland region. The Sixth Circuit held that the district court erred when it struck the two affidavits because, even though some parts of the affidavits were "inadmissable, they also contained relevant, admissible evidence concerning the affiants' personal experience of allegedly discriminatory treatment at Cingular." As such, the Sixth Circuit held that the affidavits could "be probative of whether a discriminatory atmosphere existed at Cingular during [Petitioner's] tenure." Thus, according to the Sixth Circuit, Petitioner presented sufficient evidence to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Cingular singled out Petitioner for discharge because of his race.

The Sixth Circuit next observed that the same evidence of Petitioner's superior qualifications and the discriminatory atmosphere at Cingular were also sufficient to establish pretext, emphasizing that such evidence could "cast doubt on the basis in fact of [Cingular's] proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons."

Because all evidence and reasonable inferences in a motion for summary judgment must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment and remanded the case.

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...s.pdf/13a0295p-06.pdf

Panel: Cole and Donald, Circuit Judges; and Marbley, District Judge (sitting by designation)

Argument: July 25, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: October 17, 2013

Docket Number: 12-4137

Decided: Reversed and remanded.

Case Alert Author: Yvonne Carver

Counsel: ARGUED: E. Yvonne Harris, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellant. Casey Alan Coyle, RHOADS & SINON LLP, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: E. Yvonne Harris, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellant. Todd J. Shill, John R. Martin, RHOADS & SINON LLP, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: District Judge Marbley

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Tammy Asher

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 01/14/2014 02:22 PM     6th Circuit  

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