EMPLOYER WALKS AWAY FROM MAJOR SUPREME COURT EMPLOYMENT CASE

by Patricia A. Schaeffer, Vice President-Regulatory Affairs

On April 12, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a high profile employment discrimination case (BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Los Angeles v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) on the motion of the company without affirming or reversing the prior circuit court decision. The case was just days before oral arguments before the Supreme Court were scheduled.

As a result, a Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving an African-American employee, who is alleging racial discrimination, will stand and his case will be heard by a federal district court jury.

Background:
A BCI district sales manager had ordered plaintiff Stephen Peters to work on his scheduled day off because of a heavy workload. The order came through Peters’ immediate supervisor, and Peters responded by saying that “I can’t do it. I have other plans.” Peters called in sick on his previously scheduled day off to his immediate supervisor and provided satisfactory medical documentation. The sales manager contacted a human resources manager, who worked 450 miles away from the site, who subsequently fired Peters for insubordination.

The company argued the HR manager, who actually fired Peters, did not know of his race and therefore could not have discriminated against him. Peters claimed the HR manager was given biased information from the sales manager, who had purportedly a reputation for treating black employees worse than other employees.

A federal judge in New Mexico had initially agreed with the company and dismissed the case. But the EEOC intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of Peters and persuaded the circuit court to let Peters case go to trial. The agency characterized the claim as a “cat’s paw” or “rubber stamp” theory, whereby an employer may be liable for the acts of a biased subordinate, even if that subordinate is not the formal decisionmaker. BCI had appealed the Tenth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court.

The case is now expected to go to trial.

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