Seventh Circuit Issues Reverse Discrimination Decision
august 1, 2016
On February 2, 2016, the Seventh Circuit reversed the defendant’s summary judgment regarding a construction worker’s claims of racial discrimination under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and remanded the case for further proceedings. Deets v. Massman Constr. Co., 811 F.3d 978 (7th Cir. 2016). In Deets, the Seventh Circuit held that the district court erred when it determined that a project superintendent’s explanation to a Caucasian employee that he was laying off the employee because he needed more minorities was not direct evidence of discrimination.
A joint venture company, Massman, Traylor, Alberici, (MTA), was awarded a contract by the Missouri Department of Transportation to build a bridge across the Mississippi River connecting St. Clair County, Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri. The project was federally assisted and the contract contained federally mandated goals for employment participation by minorities (14.7 percent) and women (6.9 percent), which required good faith.
Terry Deets, a Caucasian construction worker, was hired by MTA and rotated through various assignments until he was laid off by MTA’s project superintendent. When Deets asked for a reason for his termination, the superintendent told him "[m]y minority numbers aren't right. I'm supposed to have 13.9 percent minorities on this job and I've only got 8 percent." Deets, 811 F.3d at 980. While collecting his last paycheck, Deets stated that a pier superintendent said he was "sorry to hear about this minority thing." Id. According to the sworn affidavit of a crane operator, the superintendent stated that he "would have to terminate Deets' 40-hour-minimum work week because there was an insufficient number of non-white workers at the Worksite." Id. Later, the superintendent filled the position he allegedly promised to Deets by hiring a racial minority worker.
After receiving his right to sue letter from the EEOC, Deets filed his lawsuit with the district court alleging that he was laid off because he was Caucasian, in violation of Title VII and § 1981. The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that Deets had not offered evidence of intentional discrimination. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on both claims, finding that the superintendent’s statement to Deets about “minority numbers” was not direct evidence of discrimination because it was not clear if the statement referred to Deets’ layoff. The district court also rejected Deets’ argument that Deets’ lack of work was pretextual because the decision to hire the minority worker was made before they terminated Deets.
Seventh Circuit’s Analysis
The Seventh Circuit concluded that the superintendent’s statement did in fact constitute direct evidence of discrimination. The court noted that the statement was made at the time the superintendent informed Deets he was being laid off and in direct response to Deets' inquiry about the basis for his termination. Thus, it was clear from the face of the statement that race was the factor that led to Deets’ termination. The Seventh Circuit emphasized that Title VII does not allow employers to terminate employees on the basis of race, even where there is at-will employment.
Additionally, the Seventh Circuit found that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to permit a reasonable juror to conclude that Deets was laid off because of his race, and that in arriving at the opposite conclusion, the district court erred as a matter of law.