Title VII claims of Hispanic HR employee who was moved to meat-packing job, then fired, are revived on appeal
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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Title VII claims of Hispanic HR employee who was moved to meat-packing job, then fired, are revived on appeal

By Harold S. Berman, J.D.

A Hispanic HR rep who was transferred from her office to the poultry processing facility’s production line, and then fired, could proceed with her Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 race and national origin discrimination claims, ruled the Eleventh Circuit in an unpublished opinion, reversing summary judgment on her discriminatory discipline and termination claims. Though the employee apparently didn’t mind her new duties handling chicken carcasses, the district court erred in concluding that she did not suffer an adverse employment action. The appeals court also found sufficient evidence raising triable issues on whether her race or national origin was a motivating factor in her termination (Vinson v. Koch Foods of Alabama, LLC, May 23, 2018, per curiam, unpublished).

Suspension. The employee, a Puerto Rican female, worked as an orientation clerk in the HR department of a chicken processing facility. In January 2012, she and two Caucasian coworkers were off-site for a few hours, leaving the HR office unattended. The employee and one of the coworkers had left to visit a sick coworker who was in the hospital. When the three returned, the HR manager suspended them until further notice. The employee was reinstated one day after her coworkers.

Transfer to production line. Following the suspension, the HR manager changed the employee’s responsibilities to work with new hires on the production floor rather than in the HR office. Her workstation in the HR office was removed, and she was required to learn production line duties, including handling chicken carcasses and operating machinery. The HR manager did not similarly change the two white coworkers’ responsibilities. The employee’s former position was filled by a Puerto Rican woman.

Termination. The HR manager terminated the employee in May 2012. He testified that he fired the employee because the plant manager reported she was not doing her job, and so the plant manager wanted the position eliminated. However, the plant manager testified that he did not recommend that the HR manager fire the employee. The company did not fill her position.

The employee sued the company and the HR manager under Title VII and Section 1981 for race and national origin discrimination. The federal district court dismissed some of her claims and granted summary judgment on the rest.

Discriminatory discipline. The Eleventh Circuit reversed summary judgment on the employee’s discriminatory discipline claim, holding that the district court erred in finding she did not suffer an adverse employment action. Though she did not mind being on the production floor, had received a raise, and was not given significantly different job responsibilities, her subjective view of the change was not controlling. Moreover, the fact that she received a raise shortly before she was fired did not make an adverse employment action favorable.

Additionally, in the appellate court’s view, her new position did entail significantly different job responsibilities. She lost her computer access and office, instead being required to pull parts from and saw chicken carcasses, hang dead chickens on shackles, use packaging machinery, and weigh boxes of meat. Neither of the two white coworkers underwent such a change after their suspension, and a reasonable jury could view the employee’s job change as adverse.

The employee also brought sufficient evidence to show the HR manager’s proffered reason for moving her was pretextual, and that he instead created the job specifically because it was unnecessary and would give him a reason to later fire her. Although the HR manager claimed he wanted the employee to interact more with production floor employees and assist in training them, the evidence showed it never was clear what her new job entailed. Despite repeated requests, she never was given a job description, and the position did not exist on any company organizational chart, or at any of the company’s other processing plants. The plant manager did not know why the employee was on the production floor, and no one filled her position after she was terminated.

Discriminatory termination. The appeals court also reversed summary judgment on the employee’s discriminatory termination claim. The district court first erred by concluding that the record did not discredit the company’s reason for firing her, which would then require the employee to show pretext. However, pretext was not part of a “motivating factor” analysis, so the employee did not need to discredit the company’s reasons, but only show a genuine issue of fact concerning whether race or national origin was a motivating factor in the termination decision. Additionally, she did bring evidence that the HR manager’s reasons for terminating her were not the real reasons.

The district court also erred in concluding that hiring a Puerto Rican woman to replace the employee in the HR office showed the HR manager did not harbor discriminatory animus toward Hispanics. The employee was not required to show that her replacement did not share her protected attribute.

Finally, the district court erred in concluding that the employee could not show that her race or national origin was a motivating factor in her termination. She brought evidence of the HR manager’s discriminatory animus, such as the union rep’s testimony that he observed the HR manager disciplining Hispanics more harshly than Caucasians. This, combined with the competing evidence concerning the HR manager’s explanation for the termination, created a jury issue as to whether race or national origin was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate her.

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