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Media Alerts - Shazor v. Prof'l Transit Mgmt. - Sixth Circuit
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April 9, 2014
  Shazor v. Prof'l Transit Mgmt. - Sixth Circuit
Headline: One witness interview about employee's suspected workplace dishonesty is insufficient investigation to support employer's "honest belief" defense to discrimination claim.

Area of Law: Title VII Employment Discrimination

Issue Presented: Was summary judgment of plaintiff's Title VII employment-discrimination claims proper where plaintiff presented evidence that her supervisors had exchanged emails describing her in unflattering terms and that she was replaced by a person outside her protected racial class, but where there was also evidence that she had lied to her supervisors before she was fired?

Brief Summary: Plaintiff, a female African-American executive of a regional transit authority, claimed she was fired in violation of federal law and brought a Title VII employment-discrimination claim. Plaintiff based her claim on emails between her former supervisors calling her a "prima donna" and a "helluva bitch," and the fact that she was replaced by a person outside her protected racial class. Defendants countered that plaintiff had been fired for the legitimate reason that she had twice lied to her supervisors. The Sixth Circuit held that plaintiff's proofs rebutted defendants' evidence. And because defendants did not conduct a "reasonably informed and considered" investigation before firing plaintiff, they could not establish an "honest belief" in the proffered reason for plaintiff's firing.

Significance: Although a defendant can defeat a prima facie discrimination claim under the honest-belief doctrine if the employer made a "reasonably informed and considered decision" before taking the complained-of action, the investigation supporting the honest belief cannot be cursory. Here, an investigation into the plaintiff's truthfulness that included a single conversation with one person was not enough to show an honest belief in the proffered reason for plaintiff's firing.

Extended Summary: Plaintiff was fired from her assigned position as CEO of a transit authority and brought a Title VII claim for race and sex discrimination. The district court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed, contending that she presented both direct and circumstantial evidence of discrimination on the basis of her sex and race.

Although the Sixth Circuit identified complex issues of fact and law under plaintiff's direct-evidence theory of employment discrimination, it found no need to rule on these because plaintiff's circumstantial-evidence theory provided a sufficient basis to overturn the summary judgment. The circumstantial-evidence theory requires a plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing four elements: (1) she was a member of a protected class, (2) she was discharged, (3) she was qualified for the position held, and (4) she was replaced by someone outside of her protected class. The parties agreed that the first three elements were met but disagreed on the fourth. Defendant argued that the relevant question was whether similarly situated, nonprotected individuals were treated any better, but the court disagreed. Since plaintiff was African American and her replacement was Hispanic, it was clear that someone outside plaintiff's protected class had replaced her. Accordingly, the prima facie case of race discrimination was established.

Addressing the sex-discrimination claim, plaintiff presented evidence of emails between her former supervisors in which they referred to her as a "prima donna" and a "helluva bitch." The Sixth Circuit agreed that the emails revealed sexist animus toward plaintiff. Thus, the plaintiff met the prima facie burden for discrimination on the basis of both sex and race.

Defendants then offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for plaintiff's firing: that plaintiff had twice lied about issues related to the unionization of the transit authority's drivers and maintenance technicians. The court found, however, that genuine issues of material fact existed regarding the truthfulness of plaintiff's assertions, which precluded summary judgment.

Finally, the Sixth Circuit noted that an employer's "honest belief" in the proffered basis for the firing can overcome a finding of pretext. The key inquiry in assessing whether an employer had an honest belief is whether the employer made a "reasonably informed and considered decision" before taking the complained-of action. In this case, defendants' investigation into plaintiff's purported lies consisted of a single conversation between plaintiff's supervisor and another person. This evidence did not establish defendants' reasonable reliance on particularized facts concerning plaintiff's truthfulness. The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the case, finding sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment.

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...s.pdf/14a0034p-06.pdf

Panel: Cole and Clay, Circuit Judges; Bertelsman, District Judge

Argument: December 4, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: February 19, 2014

Docket Number: 13-3253

Decided: February 19, 2014

Case Alert Author: Iris Timm

Counsel: ARGUED: Laura Welles Wilson, BLANK ROME LLP, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant. Susan R. Bell, CORS & BASSETT LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Laura Welles Wilson, Nathaniel R. Jones, Michael L. Cioffi, Lori G. Nuckolls, BLANK ROME LLP, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant. Susan R. Bell, Robert J. Hollingsworth, Alexis L. McDaniel, CORS & BASSETT LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellees.
Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Clay

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Barbara Kalinowski

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 04/09/2014 12:32 PM     6th Circuit  

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