Attorney Blog, Human Resources

Offensive Remarks By Employer Not Held as Racism During Discrimination Suit

Attorney Harrison Oldham

Stray remarks, while “offensive,” did not show that Texas Children’s Hospital fired an employee based on race, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Eaglin v. Texas Children’s Hospital, No. 19-20222 (5th Cir. Feb. 4, 2020)) [http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/19/19-20222.0.pdf].

Plaintiffs Annette Williams and Victoria Eaglin—who are both black—worked for Texas Children’s Hospital (“TCH”) as Patient Access Representatives at the cardiology reception desk. Eaglin was fired after the hospital investigated an incident and concluded that she had clocked in for a co-worker who was not at work at the time. Eaglin filed a complaint with the EEOC and received a right to sue letter. She later sued, alleging that her termination was based on race; in support of her claim, she alleged that, from time to time, her supervisors made offensive comments. One supervisor “flipped” her hair and asked how much she paid for it, she said. That same supervisor also allegedly asked Eaglin if she ate watermelon and fried chicken on holidays. Another supervisor referred to Eaglin and a co-worker as the “black girls” and questioned whether it was professional to wear braids in the medical field, Eaglin said. A supervisor also occasionally made comments indicating that someone in the hospital’s administration wanted to replace Eaglin with a Hispanic employee.

Similar incidents with non-supervisors also occurred. Maria Berrera, another TCH employee, once said to Williams and Eaglin that the hospital wanted someone Hispanic working at the reception desk.  But not everyone at TCH made offensive remarks. Eaglin testified in her deposition that her second-level supervisor never did anything that she felt was discriminatory.

In her suit, the district court assumed without deciding that Eaglin had established a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII. The district court determined that the hospital had offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating her employment and granted it summary judgment.

Title VII prohibits employers from discharging or otherwise discriminating against any individual because of race. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Discrimination in violation of Title VII may be shown through direct or circumstantial evidence.

Direct evidence is evidence which, if believed, proves the fact without inference or presumption. On appeal, the 5th Circuit noted that Eaglin’s proffered direct evidence merely constitute “stray remarks,” noting that “the statements — even if offensive — were either not made by someone with authority to terminate Eaglin’s employment, were not proximate in time to her firing, or were not related to the termination decision.”

Said another way, “None of the statements, even ‘if believed, proves the fact [of intentional discrimination] without inference or presumption.’”

Accordingly, without direct evidence, Eaglin’s claim had to be analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas framework. Under the framework, first, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of race-based discrimination. The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee’s rejection”—a reason that “must be legally sufficient to justify a judgment for the defendant.” If an employer does so, the employee then has the burden of showing that the proffered reason was a pretext for discrimination or that the plaintiff’s protected characteristic was “a motivating factor for the employment decision.”

TCH asserted that it fired Eaglin because its investigation concluded that she violated TCH policy by falsifying timekeeping records. Upon review, the 5th Circuit noted that is a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. Once TCH offered a nondiscriminatory reason, the burden shifted to Eaglin to show that the proffered reason was pretextual. However, the court found that Eaglin’s proffered evidence failed to raise a fact issue regarding whether anyone at TCH acted with a discriminatory motive. For those reasons, the court held that Eaglin failed to show that TCH’s proffered justification for firing her was pretextual. She therefore failed to support her claim on appeal.

Although this is another win for employers, companies should still be careful and closely monitor stray, inappropriate and/or discriminatory, remarks around the workplace.

About Harrison Oldham

Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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