7th Cir.: Lack of Documentation Lets Race Bias Claims Be Heard

By Jeffrey L. Rhodes May 7, 2015
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A ruling dismissing discrimination claims against the Chicago Board of Education and its unit director for discharging a black curriculum facilitator while retaining a white curriculum facilitator must be reversed based on lack of documentation of the alleged reasons for the decision, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Joyce Hutchens alleged that she was discriminated against when the board and Amanda Rivera, the board’s unit director, laid off her and another curriculum facilitator, Deborah Glowacki. The board subsequently reinstated Glowacki, who is white, but not Hutchens, who is black.

Hutchens claimed that her credentials met or exceeded those of Glowacki. While Hutchens previously served at a prestigious Chicago public school, Glowacki taught for several years at a parochial school. Both curriculum facilitators had certification from the national board, although Hutchens had additional certification in various language and business subjects, while no specialized certification was held by Glowacki.

The board presented testimony that Glowacki appeared to have better leadership skills and that Hutchens had had negative interactions with other employees. Additionally, the decision-makers were seemingly unbiased because Rivera, who is Puerto Rican, had hired Hutchens but it was Alan Anderson, a black human resource administrator, who decided to lay her off. The board further presented testimony that the curriculum facilitators’ supervisor had evaluated Glowacki’s performance as better than that of Hutchens, and it described reports of tardiness and disputes with colleagues by Hutchens. Based on this evidence, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of Hutchens’ discrimination claims before trial.

The 7th Circuit, however, criticized the lack of documentation produced in support of the board’s assertions. In reviewing the curriculum facilitators’ credentials, the 7th Circuit credited Hutchens’ testimony and evidence of various awards she had received and a project she had spearheaded. Furthermore, it discounted evidence of disharmony between Hutchens and another employee who had disagreed over noise levels in a shared room and it questioned the lack of documentation of Hutchens’ purportedly poor evaluation. The 7th Circuit further noted that Hutchens had drafted her appeal pleadings without counsel, and it praised the quality of her writing in the pleadings.

While the board and Rivera claimed that even a mistaken decision by officials could not alone establish discrimination, the 7th Circuit ruled that a reasonable jury could interpret the errors it perceived in weighing the curriculum facilitators’ credentials as evidence of discrimination. As a result, the 7th Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing the case at summary judgment and required the trial court to proceed with a trial on Hutchens’ discrimination claims.

Hutchens v. Chicago Board of Education, 7th Cir., No. 13-3648 (March 24, 2015).

Professional Pointer: Employers should carefully and diligently record and retain documentation supporting their employment decisions. Even a seemingly innocent failure to keep documentation could be interpreted as evidence of racial bias, allowing a claim to proceed to trial absent other traditional evidence of discriminatory motivation.

Jeffrey L. Rhodes is the managing partner of the civil division of Albo & Oblon LLP, a business and employment law firm in Arlington, Va.

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