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What Constitutes “Direct Evidence” of Illegal Discrimination?

Dec. 18, 2017

Employment discrimination takes many forms. Indeed, when it comes to race discrimination, you do not have to belong to a minority racial group in order to be a victim. Any discrimination in hiring or firing based on a person’s race is illegal under federal law.

White Worker Claims He Was Fired to Meet Racial Quota

For example, a federal appeals court in Chicago recently held a Caucasian (white) construction worker could proceed with an employment discrimination lawsuit. The employer was a joint venture of three construction companies hired to build a bridge over the Mississippi River to connect St. Clair County, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri. The job itself was subject to a collective bargaining agreement between the joint venture and two local labor unions. The Missouri Department of Transportation, which commissioned the bridge, also imposed certain federal hiring goals for female and minority racial hiring.

The plaintiff in this case was a union member working on the bridge project. About two months into the job, the plaintiff was laid off. The plaintiff alleged his superintendent told him that “my minority numbers aren’t right.” Another employee later said in a sworn affidavit that the same superintendent told him more explicitly that he had to fire the plaintiff “because there was an insufficient number of non-white workers at the Worksite.”

The superintendent denied there was any racial discrimination. He said the plaintiff was laid off because, at the time, there was no work for him. However, he acknowledged that for several weeks leading up to the layoff, the job site “had been out of compliance with its minority participation goal,” and accordingly he did hire a minority employee to fill a job the plaintiff was qualified for.

The plaintiff sued the employer in federal court alleging illegal employment discrimination. The trial judge dismissed the case, finding there was a lack of “direct evidence”–in other words, a “smoking gun”–proving there was racial discrimination. The plaintiff appealed.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees all employment discrimination cases from Illinois, agreed with the plaintiff that the trial judge prematurely dismissed his lawsuit. The appeals court said it was “puzzled” that the trial judge did not consider the superintendent’s alleged statement to the plaintiff as “direct evidence” of racial discrimination. The trial judge apparently made a distinction between the superintendent’s “decision not to rehire [the plaintiff] rather than his decision to terminate [the plaintiff].” But the Seventh Circuit noted the statement was allegedly made in the context of the superintendent explaining his decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment. In other words, the discrimination when the plaintiff was laid off, regardless of whether there was further discrimination when he was not rehired.

Contact an Employment Discrimination Lawyer Today

Employment discrimination is not always easy to prove. There may not be a direct statement from a supervisor confirming discriminatory intent. But as the Seventh Circuit explained in the case above, even a collection of “scraps of circumstantial evidence” may allow a jury to conclude a person was fired (or not hired) for illegal discriminatory reasons. That is why if you suspect you have been the victim of an illegal job action, you should speak with an experienced Roselle employment discrimination attorney. Contact the Law Office of Michael T. Smith if you need to speak with an attorney about your case today.