The end of WWII laid out some problems for America: now that the boys were back, was there any use for working girls? Despite the fact that women were qualified for the positions they’d held during the war, most were let go in order to make room for men in the labor market.
In these “reduction-in-force” discrimination suits, a plaintiff must establishes a prima facie case by showing:
- They belonged to a protected group,
- The employer discharged them,
- They were qualified for the position
- There exists evidence from which a fact finder could reasonably conclude that the employer intended to discriminate.
However, the Courts are still split on one issue:
In order to show that they were qualified, does a plaintiff have to establish that they satisfactorily lived up to the “reasonable expectations” of the employer, or do they have to simply show that they satisfied the basic requirements of eligibility?
The Seventh Circuit, in Coco v. Elmwood Care, Inc. (1997), held that a plaintiff must prove that they met the “legitimate expectations” of their employer. In cases such as this, where there is no direct evidence of discrimination occurring, the burden of proof lies on the plaintiff to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact.
Plaintiff here, Coco, was a maintenance supervisor in a nursing home. His regular responsibilities included documenting safety and maintenance problems in his weekly reports, taking care of getting these problems fixed, and conducting fire and other safety drills. His employer, Elmwood Care, Inc. claims that Coco showed deficiencies in his work, not because of his age. The court agrees that defendant’s reasons aren’t entirely credible. However, plaintiff did not meet the threshold requirement presenting evidence of his work, thus barring the defendant from having to present, in court, reasons for his termination.
The district court here granted summary judgment for the defendant on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to fulfill his burden of proof. The court stressed the importance of this requirement as evidence for a plaintiff’s fulfillment of “legitimate expectations” rests on “demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Without any proof that the discharge was could not have been a result of the actual work he was doing, there is no way to prove discrimination. The court operates under certain preconditions:
- plaintiff must be a member of a protected class, and if they are not then they cannot have been discriminated against, and
- plaintiff must show they lived up to the legitimate expectations of their employer, otherwise they cannot show they wouldn’t have been fired without discrimination.
42 U.S. Code § 1981 states that all persons will have the same rights and privileges enjoyed by white citizens in every state and territory and shall be subject to the same punishments and taxes, etc.
The Eighth Circuit held in Arnold v. Nursing and Rehabilitation Center at Good Shepherd, LLC, (2006) that the lower court ruling raised the standard set by the Supreme Court in order to show qualification.
Brenda Arnold, an African-American licensed practical nurse, worked at Good Shepherd. A resident accused her of verbal abuse, leading to an internal investigation by Good Shepherd. Subsequently, she was fired. A later investigation by the State of Arkansas concluded that there had been no verbal abuse, after which Arnold brought suit against Good Shepherd for violating 42 U.S. Code § 1981. The statute states that all persons will have the same rights and privileges enjoyed by white citizens in every state and territory and shall be subject to the same punishments and taxes, etc.
Arnold’s qualifications spoke for themselves: she was a licensed practical nurse and had served for almost a year before she was let go.
Though the Eighth Circuit Court did ultimately affirm the lower court’s ruling, the decision’s explanation for the term ‘qualification’ led to a split in the circuit courts.
Why It’s Important
Employment discrimination is never straightforward. Employees have an increasingly difficult time winning cases against their employers, and a split in the circuit court system allows for one region to function with a different set of rules. The threshold is lower for the Eighth Circuit Court, leaving plaintiffs in the Seventh Circuit at a disadvantage.
Furthermore, when an employee is forced to prove that they had fulfilled the “legitimate expectations” of their employers, it is difficult for them to quantify what their employer’s expectations were and if they managed to live up to them.
The threshold for qualifications must be universal in all circuit courts. The split in circuit courts here makes it difficult for lower courts to make a decision that doesn’t place plaintiffs at a disadvantage, and it is necessary for SCOTUS to grant a writ in order to resolve this inconsistency in the law.