In a recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, Mitten v. Lockheed – Martin Aeronautics, the Appellate Court determined that an employee may bring a claim for relief where sufficient circumstantial evidence exists of racial discrimination. It is not necessary to show that another person in the same job position was treated more favorably in order to have a triable claim.
Here, a white male – Anthony Mitten, a supervisor at Lockheed-Martin Aeronautics -claimed that his employer discriminated against him on account of his race by firing him after receiving and then forwarding a racially insensitive joke email. Under a “zero-tolerance” policy in place at Lockheed-Martin, supervisors were required to report acts of harassment, which then would be subject to a Human Resource’s investigation. The HR department would determine the appropriate discipline, up to and including termination. After learning about Mitten’s action in forwarding the email rather than immediately reporting it, the HR department started an investigation into Mitten’s conduct and subsequently fired him. Mitten later learned that two Black employees had recently transmitted racist emails targeting whites and received more lenient treatment under the same zero tolerance policy. Mitten then sued claiming reverse race discrimination.
Unfortunately, racism still exists in the workplace. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees “because of” their race or color. The law not only applies to Black people and other racial minorities, but individuals of all races and colors. When a non-minority employee brings a claim, it is known as “reverse discrimination.”
The District Court for the Northern District of Georgia rejected Mitten’s claim of discrimination reasoning that because Mitten did not point out preferentially treated Black people in the same job position as him – a supervisory role – he lacked sufficient evidence of discrimination to continue his case.
The 11 Circuit Appellate Court disagreed, stating “[D]ifferences in job ranks…are not, in and of themselves dispositive as to whether the two individuals may be compare for the purposes of evaluating a discrimination claim.” Significantly, the Appellate Court also noted “the plaintiff will always survive summary judgment if he presents circumstantial evidence that creates a triable issue concerning the employer’s discriminatory intent [emphasis added].” If a jury could infer intentional intent based on the circumstantial evidence, then the case may continue.
In this situation, circumstantial evidence introduced included widespread media publicity about recent shootings at the plant, as well as a pending investigation into a hostile work environment, that might have influenced management to take a particularly hard line against racial harassment. Evidence was also presented that Black employees were disciplined less harshly for zero tolerance violations. The court determined that although the white supervisor failed to identify a similarly situated Black supervisor, substantial circumstantial evidence existed during the spring and summer of 2005 that Lockheed “consciously interjected race into its discipline decision making without an explanation for doing so.”
In race discrimination cases, the rule is always the same – you may not be discriminated against based on the color of your skin, whatever color you may be. Even if you can’t point to an individual in the exact same job rank as you who was treated better than you, circumstantial evidence of discrimination is enough to bring a claim. This decision is a significant victory for all individuals who face workplace discrimination.
For more information, or if you believe you have been subjected to workplace discrimination, please contact the Atlanta race discrimination lawyers for a confidential case evaluation.