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Important Decision From Sixth Circuit in Discriminatory Failure to Promote Case

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Female Officer Wins Big In Fight For Discriminatory Denial Of Promotion

It’s not uncommon for women to be passed over for promotions they deserve – but proving gender discrimination has been difficult.

The good news is that the recent decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Risch v. Royal Oak Police Department will make it easier to succeed in these cases in the future. 

What Happened In The Case

Karen Risch was a patrol officer for the Royal Oak Police Department for seventeen years.

In 2005 Risch was passed over for a promotion to the position of detective. Two male applicants, who had lower scores than Risch under the promotion system used by the Department, were awarded the positions instead of her.

Risch claimed that the Department failed to promote her to a command position six times between 2002 and 2005.

Risch filed a gender discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal district court (Eastern District of Michigan) granted judgment in favor of the Royal Oak Police Department and threw out Risch’s case.

On September 23, 2009, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and this is why.

Evidence of Pretext

Discrimination cases are hard to prove but here’s how it’s done in a nutshell.

The plaintiff can prove her lawsuit by establishing what is called a prima facie case which can establish an inference of discrimination. If she does that, the defendant must come forward with admissible evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action.

Once the Defendant establishes a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its conduct,  the plaintiff must identify evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the employer’s proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

A plaintiff can prove pretext by showing that the employer’s stated reason for the adverse employment action either:

  1. has no basis in fact or
  2. was not the actual reason or
  3. is insufficient to explain the employer’s action

In this case, the trial court granted judgment against Risch because it concluded that Risch failed to present sufficient evidence that the Department’s proffered explanation for not promoting her was pretextual.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed, holding that Risch did present ample proof of discrimination to to go before a jury.

Here’s the evidence the Court determined to be  evidence of pretext and gender discrimination.

Superior Qualifications

As the Court pointed out, Risch had superior qualifications for the position of detective than two of the male candidates (Moore and Spencer) promoted to the position in 2005. Her scores were better and she had greater experience in the department.

As the Court stated:

Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Risch … it is clear that Risch was as qualified as or better qualified than either Moore or Spencer.

Discriminatory Remarks

The Court noted that male officers frequently made degrading comments regarding the female officers. Some of those remarks included the following:

  • “The chief will never have a female officer on the command staff”
  • “None of you {female officers} will ever go anywhere …”
  • A majority of male officers told Risch that women do not belong in the police force

As the Court stated:

We have held that discriminatory remarks, even by a nondecisionmaker, can serve as probative evidence of pretext ….

The statements in this case evidence a discriminatory atmosphere in the Department in which male officers frequently made derogatory or discriminatory remarks about female officers. …

We do not view each discriminatory remark in isolation, but are mindful that the remarks buttress one another as well as any other pretextual evidence supporting an inference of discriminatory animus.

Other Evidence Proving Discrimination

The Court also made note of other evidence it considered to prove a “general atmosphere of discrimination” including discrimination against women in duties, shift assignments, and work distribution.

Part of the evidence was that Lieutenant Foster, who held a senior position in the command staff, gave the men:

  • any kind of detail they wanted
  • all of the plum assignments

The assignments and the work the men didn’t want went to the women.

This evidence, according to the Court, supported Risch’s claim that she was discriminated against regarding her promotion.

As the Court stated (citing its decision in Ercegovich v. Goodyear Tire &Rubber Co. interestingly written by the same judge as this case):

We have explained that management’s consideration of an impermissible factor in one context may support the inference that the impermissible factor entered the decisionmaking process in another context.

In light of the above evidence … we conclude that Risch has produced sufficient evidence to establish a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the Department’s proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason was pretextual.

What’s Important About The Case

What’s important about the case is that the Court broadly looked at a combination of evidence about Risch’s experiences at work (as well as that of other women) and used it to hold that Risch could challenge the department’s failure to promote her. That evidence included:

  • a record of comparative qualifications
  • discriminatory statements by decisionmakers and others in the department
  • an atmosphere of discrimination experienced by Risch and co-workers
  • the lack of women in command positions
  • proof that Risch was arguably better qualified than male candidates

The federal district court disregarded much of the evidence presented by Risch and that, according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, constituted reversible error.

The simple fact that the Court of Appeals considered all of the evidence of gender discrimination — instead of narrowly limiting the inquiry to the reasons given by the employer for the denial of the 2005 promotion — is what’s really important about this case.

It’s been historically quite difficult for women to prove that they they were denied promotions which went to less qualified male counterparts.

The Sixth Circuit’s opinion in this case —  and its broad interpretation of what kinds of evidence can support these claims —  should go a long way in helping women, as well as other victims of discrimination, get their cases in front of juries where they properly belong.

image:img.alibaba.com

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on October 8, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome


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