It is not often that appellate courts overturn trial court decisions that favor employers. However, the Fourth Circuit recently did just that. One of the main issues in the case (Haynes v. Waste Connections, Inc.) was the issue of proper comparators – that is, similarly situated employees who were treated better than the employee bringing the employment claims. In addition to identifying a proper comparator, plaintiffs must also establish that they were performing their jobs satisfactorily when they were terminated or otherwise suffered an adverse employment action and provide evidence of pretext, that is the reason given for the adverse employment action was really a disguise for discriminatory intent.
Background Facts in the Haynes v. Waste Connections, Inc. Case
The plaintiff, Jimmy Haynes, is an African-American who alleged that his former employer, Waste Connections, Inc. (WCI), terminated him because of his race and also retaliated against him after he complained about race discrimination. In particular, Haynes alleged that he left work one evening because he had a stomach virus. Although he informed his supervisor of his illness, he was accused of abandoning his job out of frustration because his normal truck was not available. Two days after he left work, he was terminated for job abandonment, which was the sole reason given for the decision. Once the lawsuit was filed, Haynes’ employer claimed that he had also committed various violations prior to his termination.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
As most employers do, when the lawsuit was filed the Defendant asked the court to dismiss the claims. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit. Haynes filed an appeal with the Fourth Circuit, seeking to have the dismissal reversed. The Fourth Circuit first assessed whether Haynes had proven that an appropriate comparator, who was not African-American, was treated more favorably than Haynes.
The Court pointed out that finding a proper comparator does not mean the two individuals must have been accused of the same offenses or involve the exact same set of facts. Instead, there needs to be a showing that the comparator had the same supervisor, were subject the same performance or conduct standards, and engaged in the same conduct without any significant circumstances that distinguish their conduct.
Proper Comparator Evidence
Specifically, the Fourth Circuit determined that a white employee, working under the same supervisor as Haynes, had been accused of several workplace violations. Additionally, the white employee had yelled at his supervisor before he resigned. However, the white employee was allowed to return to work. Haynes, who had not been insubordinate to his supervisor and had committed fewer violations, was terminated.
Since both employees worked under the same supervisor, were held to the same standards, and engaged in similar workplace violations, the court found the white employee was a valid comparator. The case was ultimately sent back to the trial court for trial.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!