Court To Weigh Burden on Victim in Proving Job Bias
WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide how far alleged victims of employment discrimination must go to win their cases when courts agree they were demoted or fired for "pretextual'' reasons.
In a case involving the demotion and discharge of an African-American supervisor at a Missouri correctional institution, the High Court agreed to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that reinstated his race-discrimination lawsuit.
The appeals court ruled that because the man had disproved his employer's purported reasons for his demotion and discharge, he was entitled to an award of damages.
The appeals court reversed a federal district judge's ruling that although the man proved a "crusade to terminate him,'' he failed to meet his "ultimate burden'' of showing that the "crusade was racially rather than personally motivated.''
In granting review of St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks (Case No. 92-602), the High Court will decide whether employees can win a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 simply by proving that an employer's professed legitimate reasons for a demotion or discharge were a pretext, or whether the employee must produce further evidence of racial bias.
The case would have clear implications for most Title VII discrimination cases involving schools, said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association.
"We look closely at every Title VII case'' reviewed by the High Court, she said.
Richard T. Seymour, the director of the employment-discrimination project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said many of the thousands of Title VII cases filed in federal courts each year boil down to the question of pretext.
"My best judgment is that this question could affect a very large percentage of fair-employment cases filed every year,'' he said.
In the Missouri case, Melvin Hicks was demoted and discharged from his job as a prison supervisor after his subordinates violated several rules over a short period of time. He demonstrated in court, however, that white supervisors whose subordinates had committed similar or more serious violations were not disciplined.
The district court agreed that the reasons for his discharge were pretextual, but said he must further prove that his race was the reason for his dismissal.
The appeals court overturned that ruling, saying Mr. Hicks was entitled to win his claim by proving the pretext.
The High Court will hear arguments in the case in April, with a decision likely by late June.
In separate action, the Court last week let stand lower-court rulings allowing the Prince George's County, Md., school district to transfer teachers to satisfy the racial quotas included in a student-desegregation plan.
The High Court declined to review the appeal in Stone v. Prince George's County Board of Education (No. 92-786), in which 12 teachers argued that the involuntary transfers, which were made on the basis of race rather than seniority, violated their rights to equal protection under the law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had upheld the transfer policy last September.
Also last week, the High Court ruled that states and their subdivisions, including school districts, may immediately appeal any federal-district-court decision denying them their 11th Amendment sovereign immunity from federal lawsuits.
The Justices voted 8 to 1, in Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer
Authority v. Metcalf & Eddy Inc. (No. 91-1010), to overturn a
lower-court decision that the utility could not immediately appeal a
ruling that it was not entitled to immunity from being sued.