8TH CIRCUIT COURT ENDORSES NARROW INTERPRETATION OF BEING "SIMILARLY SITUATED"

The case is Young v. Builder’s Steel decided on 6/9/14 [2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 10643] and may be viewed here. The facts of the case are that Michael Young was the only black employee in a 23-person shop in Kansas City in which he worked for 26 years before being laid off.  He alleges that in 2007, he was asked to bid down from “Welder A" ($17.58 per hour) to “Burner A” ($16.47 per hour) under the (alleged false) promise he would receive his original salary after the bid down.  He was laid off in 2011 along with 12 others.  Subsequently, two of the other laid off employees were called back, prompting Young to sue.  Young had previously complained and sued on the pay issue.  Young charged both racial discrimination for failure to re-hire, as well as retaliation.  Builders was awarded summary judgment at the district court level, and this judgment was upheld by the 8th Circuit in an opinion written by Judge Bye.

 

A key ingredient in this case was that by union agreement, shop employees were divided into separate job classifications and wage groups.  Young was in Wage Group 3, which contained Welder A, Burner A, and Maintenance/Machine Operator.  Indeed, he was the only Burner A employee.  The two recalled employees, were both white, and had less seniority than Young.  However, they had higher classified job titles (“Group Lead” and “Material Handler”).

 

Following prior precedents within the 8th Circuit, Judge Bye ruled that Young had to prove he was "similarly situated in all relevant respects" to the two recalled employees.  According to Judge Bye:

Even though other employees were in Wage Group 3, there were no other employees who were classified as Burner A. The Wage Groups were a form of union negotiation and organization to systemize pay, but were not necessarily linked to similar jobs. Members of Wage Group 3 performed different jobs and required different types of certifications and different knowledge to perform those jobs. Young cannot show he was similarly situated "in all relevant respects" to any of the other Wage Group 3 employees because he cannot show he could perform their jobs.

 

In prior cases (see Chappell v. Bilco Co. (2012) [675 F.3d 1110] and Riser v. Target Corp. (2006) [458 F.3d 817]) the 8th Circuit had ruled that employees were not similarly situated because they had different job titles and job duties.

 

The court’s reasoning in these cases is important because the most often used proof of pretext in disparate treatment cases by (say) a black worker is that a white comparator(s) was treated less harshly under otherwise similar circumstances.  The 8th Circuit’s rule made it impossible for Young to make this proof if, for no other reason, he was the only employee in his job title.  Under this logic, an individual who is the only individual in his job classification can be fired for a violation regardless of how others elsewhere in the company are treated for the same violation.  Needless to say, Young’s other allegation (relating to his pay claim) were never evaluated.

 

By Art Gutman, Ph.D., Professor, Florida Institute of Technology

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