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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
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Court Rejects Employer’s Rationales For Treating Employees Differently In Race Discrimination Case

Fence that has stop racism sign

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race.  As explained by the U.S. Supreme Court in Los Angeles Dept. of Water & Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702 (1978), a fundamental purpose of Title VII is “to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment” in employment.  Having more than 15 years of experience representing employees victimized by race discrimination in the workplace, our Central Florida race discrimination attorneys have learned that employers frequently proffer baseless, if not untruthful, rationales for treating employees belonging to a different racial group more favorably.  Under well-established law, employees can prove that an adverse employment action was motivated by racial animus in violation of Title VII from the mere fact of differences in treatment.  In Wheat v. Fifth Third Bank, 785 F.3d 230 (6th Cir. 2015), the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the employer’s more favorable treatment of a white employee was evidence of race discrimination and held that the case be resolved by a jury after consideration of the parties’ sworn testimony.

Different Treatment Of Employees Involved In Altercation

In that case, Curtis Wheat (Wheat), who is African-American, claimed that Fifth Third Bank fired him on the basis of race in violation of Title VII.  Wheat worked as payment processor at the Madisonville, Ohio branch of Fifth Third Bank.  Wheat’s termination arose out of a workplace altercation between him and white co-worker, Brad Hatfield (Hatfield). 

During their employment with Fifth Third Bank, Wheat and Hatfield became involved in a shouting match.  After the verbal confrontation ended, Wheat returned to his desk.  While Wheat was at his desk, Hatfield approached Wheat and accosted him verbally.  The employees then walked into a hallway of the bank and became involved in another shouting match.  Wheat alleged that he was turning around to extricate himself from the argument when Hatfield “assaulted” him by swatting him on his arm.  Ultimately, Wheat’s supervisor separated the two employees. 

Following its investigation, Fifth Third Bank fired Wheat because he had violated the bank’s “workplace violence policy,” had “made a threat of physical violence,” violated the bank’s “anti-harassment policy,” and violated the bank’s “core values.”  In contrast, Hatfield was allowed to return to work and was given only a written disciplinary action because he was deemed the “non-aggressor.”      

Fifth Third Bank filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Wheat’s race discrimination case.  In doing so, Fifth Third Bank asked the trial court to find that Wheat’s race discrimination case failed as a matter of law and Wheat was prohibited from presenting his case to a jury.  The trial court granted Fifth Third Bank’s motion and dismissed Wheat’s race discrimination case.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Wheat’s race discrimination case.

Employee Whose Conduct Was Worse Treated More Favorably

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the Sixth Circuit rejected Fifth Third Bank’s proffered rationales for treating Wheat differently and less favorably than Hatfield.  The appellate court was not persuaded by Fifth Third Bank’s assertion that Wheat’s termination was justified by his failure to cooperate with its investigation because Fifth Third Bank never offered him “an opportunity to give his side of the story.”  In contrast, the appellate court noted, Fifth Third Bank gave Hatfield an opportunity to give his side of the story.  The appellate court also criticized the trial court’s adoption of Fifth Third Bank’s argument that Wheat’s termination was justified on grounds that he made a threatening remark about Hatfield because “Wheat vehemently denied ever making” the remark.  In other words, the appellate court observed, Fifth Third Banks’ proffered rationale had no basis in fact under Wheat’s account of events. 

The appellate court also decimated Fifth Third Bank’s contention that Wheat’s termination was justified because of its concern that Wheat would resort to physical violence if he returned to work.  The appellate court pointed out that Wheat did not cause the confrontation in the hallway and Fifth Third Bank knew that Hatfield “took the ill-advised step of reengaging with [Wheat] after their initial encounter.”  The appellate court further explained that Hatfield, the employee who used physical violence according to Wheat, was given only a written disciplinary action.  In contrast, Wheat, the employee who did not use physical violence, was discharged.  Thus, the Sixth Circuit found that a jury could reasonably conclude that each of the rationales proposed by Fifth Third Bank for treating Wheat less favorably by firing him “either had no basis in fact, did not actually motivate the [termination] decision, or was insufficient to warrant [termination].”

Free Consultation With Central Florida Race Discrimination Lawyers   

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, for more than 15 years we have fought for the rights of employees in race discrimination cases.  If you have been subjected to race discrimination at work or believe you have been treated differently from employees of another race, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Ocala based race discrimination lawyers.  Our employee rights law firm takes race discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover. 

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