HR Professional Could Not Show Race Discrimination in Layoff

By Jeffrey Rhodes Jun 20, 2016
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A white HR coordinator could not show discrimination in the company's decision to retain a less-senior black HR coordinator despite potential inconsistencies with its layoff policy, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled.

In 1995, Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich., employed Nancy Roschival as a human resource service center advisor whose primary role was to process workers’ compensation claims. Melany Gavulic became Hurley's CEO in 2012. During a reorganization from 2013 to 2014, Hurley trimmed and then closed its employee health office. During mid- to late-2013, some employees were laid off. Roschival survived the first round of layoffs. Roschival was promoted to human resources coordinator I in November 2013.

On July 31, 2014, Gavulic informed Roschival that she would be terminated effective Aug. 14, 2014. A layoff notice stated that the reason for the termination was that the employee health office was being closed and the services the office had provided would now be offered by an occupational medicine clinic provided to Hurley Medical Center through Hurley Health Services. Roschival admitted that the decision to close the office had nothing to do with the race of any of the employees.

However, Roschival believed that Hurley did not follow its own layoff procedures when it terminated her. Hurley’s layoff procedures, as explained in its handbook, allow for certain employees with more tenure to bump their junior colleagues so that a junior employee will be let go first. The handbook states, “Layoffs or status reductions within classifications and department are made in reverse order of seniority within classification and department.” The handbook also states, “Employees who are laid off may not bump other employees in other classifications and/or departments.” The handbook does not define “classification,” and Roschival and Hurley disagreed as to what that term means.

Roschival and Gavulic are white; however, Gavulic enlisted a human resources recruiter, Debra Roriex, who is black, to determine how to handle Roschival’s position in light of the pending closure. Hurley identified a less-senior employee in the human resources department, Jamal Dozier, who is black, with the similar title of human resources coordinator. Roriex decided that Roschival was alone in her classification because Dozier did not have the exact same title, and did not perform workers’ compensation duties. Gavulic asked Roriex whether Roschival should be able to bump Dozier. Roriex stated that Roschival could not because of the difference in titles.

On Jan. 16, 2015, Roschival filed a complaint in federal court claiming racial discrimination by Gavulic under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, wrongful discharge under Michigan law against Hurley, and racial discrimination under the Michigan civil rights act against Hurley and Gavulic. Hurley and Gavulic moved for summary judgment to dismiss Roschival’s claims before trial.

In opposing summary judgment, Roschival presented evidence from two experienced human resources professionals who left Hurley several years before Roschival’s termination. They each opined that Hurley did not follow the policies in its employee handbook when it terminated Roschival. According to the former employees, the layoff procedure provided that if there was a job series within a particular promotional unit for a particular classification, the lowest number within the job series with the least-senior employee will be laid off first. This meant that Hurley should have laid off Dozier because his job was in the same series as Roschival and was lower in number (as “human resources coordinator” is lower in number than “human resources coordinator I”).

Roschival testified that she did not believe that Roriex acted on the basis of race or that race was a deciding factor in her layoff. Roschival nevertheless cited a prior affirmative action policy of Hurley that favored retention of black employees.

The court reviewed the layoff policy in effect at the time of Roschival’s discharge, and determined that it may have differed from the prior policy described by Hurley’s former HR professionals. The court also determined that there was no evidence that the prior affirmative action policy was still in place. Because there was no evidence of racial bias in Hurley’s application of its layoff policy to Roschival, the court dismissed Roschival’s discrimination claim against Gavulic, and dismissed the state law claims for lack of federal court jurisdiction.

Roschival v. Gavulic and Hurley Medical Center, E.D. Mich., No. 15-10182 (May 26, 2016).

Professional Pointer: Employers generally have discretion to apply their policies using good-faith judgment. There are exceptions to this, such as when it appears that their decisions have a discriminatory impact or show signs of racial bias. Employers should thus carefully avoid any consideration of race or other protected characteristics when making employment decisions.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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