When an employer has a reduction in force (i.e. layoff), an employee may have an employment discrimination claim if the employee is able to establish the reason that the employee was chosen for a layoff and other similarly situated employees were not laid off is due to a protected criteria such as the employee’s age, race, sex, religion, national origin or a disability. In Johnson v. Verizon Services Corporation, E. D. Pa. no. 16-1023 (DuBois, J,) (April 18, 2017), the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment and held that an employee, the only African-American employee in his department, who was terminated during a reduction-in-force after a 33 year career at Verizon had sufficient evidence of race discrimination to proceed to a jury trial.
In Johnson, the employee worked on a code review team, responsible for identifying errors and vulnerabilities in computer applications and recoding. The employee had the highest job title ranking available in the IT Department; had received above satisfactory performance ratings, including many positive comments concerning his work performance. Of the 6 employees on the code review team, the Plaintiff, the only African-American was terminated, as part of a reduction-in-force (“RIF”) and the other 5 employees who were retained all had less work experience.
In defending the race discrimination claim, the employer contended that it terminated the Plaintiff during the RIF because he was the least valuable member of the coding team and had performance issues. According to the selecting manager, there was no specific standard used to determine who would be selected for the RIF because the manager “owned the department” so he knew what was required and he “put together a table of pros and cons” on all of the employees. However, the manager testified that he destroyed the list approximately 6 months after the termination and there were no records of any kind available regarding the manager’s selection determination.
Race discrimination cases are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting test. In order to established a prima facie case of race discrimination where there is a reduction in force, an employee must show that (1) the employee belongs to a protected class, (2) the employee was qualified for the position, (3) the employee was terminated, and (4) other employees outside of the protected class were retained. An employee’s qualifications for purposes of proving a prima facie case are determined by an objective standard. Once an employee establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination. Then an employee must show that the employer’s articulated reason was a pretext for intentional discrimination by pointing to some evidence from which a factfinder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer’s articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer’s decision to terminate employment.
In Johnson, there was no dispute that the Plaintiff was the only African-American in his group and the only employee who was terminated. Thus, the only element of the prima facie case at issue was whether he was qualified for his job. The court found that by having 33 years of employment experience at Verizon, 3 years on the coding team and only positive performance written performance appraisals, the Plaintiff was qualified for the job from which he was terminated. The employer’s proffered reason for termination was that the Plaintiff was ranked lowest in the coding group with respect to the coding skills necessary for the code review job and other employees possessed primary expertise, which the court held could be a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his firing. Then the court analyzed the evidence of pretext and held that positive performance reviews, lack of a disciplinary record, a long work history with Verizon, a ranking of being the most proficient member of the team with commendations for a wealth of knowledge and experiences and no written evidence of negative performance issues created a genuine dispute of material fact regarding the proffered reason for termination. The court noted that its findings were particularly influenced by the fact that the only evidence of deficient work performance presented by the employer was “subjective evaluations” which are more susceptible of abuse and more likely to mask pretext. Thus, the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment permitting the case to proceed to a jury trial.
Andrew Abramson and Abramson Employment Law represent employees who are terminated and are the victims of race discrimination and all other forms of employment discrimination. For more information on Pennsylvania employment law see our website at http://www.job-discrimination.com.