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Race bias claim bolstered by evidence of 14 new hires before “layoff,” 15 more thereafter

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

An African-American sheriff’s deputy who filed an EEOC charge asserting discriminatory pay, and was subsequently let go ostensibly due to a reduction in force necessitated by budget constraints, presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment on his Title VII race bias claim, a federal district court in Louisiana ruled (Hollingsworth v Sheriff’s Office of Winn Parish, October 3, 2013, Trimble, J). Reserving ruling as to the employee’s reprisal claim since the sheriff’s office failed to raise it, the court held that the employee presented sufficient evidence of pretext, including evidence that the sheriff had hired 14 new employees before — and 15 new employees after — the deputy’s alleged layoff.

In March 2009, the deputy became aware that Caucasian deputies had received pay increases while the African-American deputies had not. He filed an EEOC charge on August 27, 2009. On September 17, he was “interrogated” by the sheriff and two other deputies about the charge. That same day, he was issued a written warning which described the infraction as the filing of his EEOC charge and meeting with an attorney.

A couple of weeks later, he received a second warning notice after he called in a half hour before his scheduled shift to report that he would be absent due to the fact that his brother was in the hospital. He was discharged effective October 28, 2009, purportedly as part of a reduction in force.

The deputy established his prima facie case and presented sufficient evidence of pretext, the court held. As an initial matter, it noted that the sheriff’s office had erroneously argued that the deputy was unable to establish a causal connection between his protected activity and his discharge because several Caucasian deputies were also terminated as a result of a force reduction. While this framework would apply to his claim for retaliatory discharge, it did not apply to the issue of disparate treatment in termination.

Turning to the causation element, the record revealed that 32 Caucasian deputies remained employed following the deputy’s discharge, 18 of which held the same title as the deputy at the time of his discharge. Conversely, only two African-American deputies remained employed following his discharge. Given these undisputed facts, the employee sufficiently demonstrated the causation element of his prima facie case.

The deputy also cast sufficient doubt on the sheriff’s assertion that it discharged the deputy as part of a RIF necessitated by voter rejection of a tax needed to maintain its workforce. The deputy argued that the proffered reason was not supported by any documentation and that the sheriff had hired 14 new employees before his discharge and 15 new employees after the alleged reduction in force. On this record, the court found sufficient pretext evidence concerning the sheriff’s intent to discriminate on the basis of race.