Supreme Court Clarifies Standards in Promotion Discrimination Cases

by TChris

This isn't the most consequential Supreme Court news of the day, but it's good to see the Court admonish the Eleventh Circuit for its dismissive view of the evidence of discrimination presented in a lawsuit against Tyson Foods. Two African American superintendents at Tyson's poultry plant were denied promotions. Ash won at trial, but the district court took the victory away, concluding that he failed to prove that the denial was discriminatory.

Ash relied in part on evidence that the plant manager referred to the two men as "boy." That wasn't enough to prove a discriminatory animus, the Eleventh Circuit said, because "[w]hile the use of 'boy' when modified by a racial classification like 'black' or 'white' is evidence of discriminatory intent, the use of 'boy' alone is not evidence of discrimination." The Supreme Court concluded that juries need not be so blind to the history of racially derogatory language.

In a per curiam opinion, the Court held (pdf):

Although it is true the disputed word will not always be evidence of racial animus, it does not follow that the term, standing alone, is always benign. The speaker's meaning may depend on various factors including context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage. Insofar as the Court of Appeals held that modifiers or qualifications are necessary in all instances to render the disputed term probative of bias, the court's decision is erroneous.

Discrimination can also be established by showing that white employees with fewer qualifications were promoted. The Eleventh Circuit held that comparative evidence calls the company's rationale for a promotion into question only when "the disparity in qualifications is so apparent as virtually to jump off the page and slap you in the face." Colorful language, but not all that helpful, as legal standards go.

The visual image of words jumping off the page to slap you (presumably a court) in the face is unhelpful and imprecise as an elaboration of the standard for inferring pretext from superior qualifications.

The Court's decision today doesn't assure that Ash will retain his trial victory, but it sets the Eleventh Circuit on a more reasonable path (i.e., a path that is less hostile to employees) as it reviews the evidence in support of the jury's decision.

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    Re: Supreme Court Clarifies Standards in Promotion (none / 0) (#1)
    by aw on Tue Feb 21, 2006 at 04:23:27 PM EST
    Seemed pretty obvious to me.