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Black coworker’s higher pay alone doesn’t support white worker’s reverse race bias claim

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Affirming summary judgment against a white employee’s reverse race discrimination claim, which was premised solely on one African-American coworker in the same department who performed similar duties and received a higher salary, the Seventh Circuit found no evidence beyond the fact that the employee was white and his coworker was African-American to show that race contributed to the pay disparity. While the employee pointed to his African-American supervisor’s comment that “all my life people have been standing in my way, and they all looked exactly like you,” there was no evidence she made this comment in reference to his pay or that she had a decisionmaking role in determining pay grades (Golla v. Office of the Chief Judge of Cook County, Illinois, November 15, 2017, Bauer, J.).

Work histories. Hired in 1983 as a court coordinator for the Office of the Chief Judge of Cook County, Illinois, the employee was fired in 1995 and reinstated 10 months later after he filed a complaint with the EEOC and the parties reached a settlement. He was reinstated at a Grade 14 pay position and assumed the title of Law Clerk 1. Transferred in 2004 to the Social Services Department, he retained the same title and pay grade. His duties there were administrative in nature and included filing, creating reports, initializing cases, and processing intakes.

His coworker began working at the Office in 1978 as a probation officer, becoming a jury room manager 10 years later. By 1998, he was paid at a Grade 22. He left the office in 1999 but was rehired in 2005 and assigned to the Social Services Department as a Legal Systems Analyst with a Grade 22 pay. His duties were also administrative, and included processing case files, conducting criminal background checks, and organizing and disposing of files. Both employees were listed under the title Administrative Assistant and both reported to the same supervisor.

Lower court proceedings. In 2009, the employee learned that his coworker was making more money after a website posted the salaries of all Cook County employees. He then sued, asserting among other things a claim for race discrimination under Title VII. Finding no direct evidence of reverse racial discrimination that resulted in the pay disparity and that the employee failed to establish a prima facie case of reverse racial discrimination under the indirect method of proof, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Pay grades established years earlier. On appeal, the employee stressed the similarities in their job titles and duties, contending that the only explanation for his coworker’s higher pay grade was his race. However, said the court, the evidence showed that the employee’s Grade 14 pay was established in 1996 pursuant to the settlement agreement after his first lawsuit. His coworker’s Grade 22 pay was set in 1998 when he was a jury room manager. When the two employees were placed in the Social Services Department in 2004 and 2005, respectively, they maintained their pay grades that had been established years before.

There was no evidence that the supervisor, or anyone else in the Social Services Department, was a decisionmaker on employee compensation. Although the employee pointed to a single statement from the deposition of the Office’s HR Administrator, which could be read to suggest the supervisor could have recommended a higher pay grade for the employee, he failed to show she ever knowingly withheld such a recommendation, or that she even knew she had that potential influence.

No systematic pattern. Nor was there any evidence that the Social Services Department engaged in any systematic pattern or maintained a policy of reverse racial discrimination, observed the court, noting that many other employees in the Department with duties similar to the employee, both white and African American, were compensated at a lower pay grade than was the employee.

They all looked like you. As to the supervisor’s comment that “all my life people have been standing in my way, and they all looked like you,” there was no evidence she made this statement in reference to his pay. In addition, she had no decisionmaking role in determining pay grades, and she was unaware of the disparity in their pay until the employee informed her of it. Further, said the court, the comment was open-ended and there was no evidence she was referring to the employee’s race when she made the ambiguous remark. Moreover, the employee confirmed that the comment was not racially motivated when he stated at his deposition: “[I]s that racial? No. It’s demeaning. It’s disgusting. It’s degrading. But no, not directly racial.” In short, said the court, the evidence as a whole was insufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude that the employee was paid at a lower pay grade than his coworker on account of his race.