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A white construction worker who said he was laid off from a Missouri project because it wasn't meeting its labor contract's federally mandated minority-hiring goal can take his claims to trial, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
MTA, a joint venture among three construction companies, successfully bid on and was awarded a contract from the Missouri Department of Transportation (MDOT) to build a bridge across the Mississippi River. The bridge project received federal funding assistance and the MDOT contract contained federally mandated goals for employment participation by women (6.9 percent) and minorities (14.7 percent).
MTA promised to try to meet these goals by having an equal employment opportunity policy and an affirmative action plan, by undertaking affirmative action plan-type efforts in recruitment and training, and by securing the union’s cooperation in these goals. MTA also agreed that its equal employment opportunity policy and affirmative action plan would include a commitment to treat employees without regard to their race or other protected statuses in hiring, firing, and all others terms and conditions of employment.
On May 9, 2012, MTA hired Terry Deets, a white man, to work as a crane operator on the bridge project. On July 17, Deets claimed that project superintendent John Todt told him that he would be laid off because the project’s “minority numbers aren’t right. I’m supposed to have 13.9 percent minorities on this job and I’ve only got 8 percent.” One of Deets’ co-workers affirmed that Todt separately told him that Todt would have to fire Deets because there weren’t enough nonwhite workers at the site. Todt, however, denied making the statement. A black crane operator was subsequently hired.
Deets filed suit alleging reverse race discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer, but, on appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed.
The appellate court found that Todt’s alleged statements to Deets and the co-worker were direct evidence of discrimination: Todt’s statements could be seen as an admission that Deets was being fired because it would improve the minority participation rate. That Todt denied making this statement was irrelevant to the question of summary judgment because a jury was entitled to decide whom it would believe in this he-said/he-said scenario, the court said.
Deets v. Massman Constr. Co., 7th Cir., No. 15-1411 (Feb. 3, 2016).
Professional Pointer: An employer that uses a desire to meet a minority hiring goal as a basis for an employment decision risks being sued by nonminorities for discrimination.
Whitney R. Brown is an attorney with Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Birmingham, Ala.
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