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A male-to-female transgender automotive technician in Georgia may have been fired based at least in part on sex, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, reviving her federal sex discrimination claim.
Jennifer Chavez brought a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act against Credit Nation Auto Sales LLC, her former employer. Credit Nation sought to dismiss the claim by presenting evidence that Chavez was terminated for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason after she was found sleeping in a repair customer’s vehicle while on the clock. The district court decided in favor of Credit Nation and dismissed the claim, finding that Chavez 1) did not present any direct evidence of discriminatory intent, 2) did not present evidence that her termination was a pretext for discrimination and 3) did not present evidence suggesting that discriminatory intent was a “motivating factor” in her termination. Chavez appealed the district court’s decision to the 11th Circuit.
The appellate court determined that Chavez’s claim could proceed to trial if her circumstantial evidence showed that Credit Nation had a “mixed motive” in terminating her employment—that gender bias was a “motivating factor” even though other lawful factors also contributed to Credit Nation’s decision to terminate her employment.
The court considered the following facts: Chavez worked as an auto mechanic at Credit Nation from June 18, 2008, until Jan. 11, 2010. When she announced her gender transition in October 2009, Credit Nation initially seemed supportive. Chavez met with Credit Nation’s president, James Torchia, who gave her an advance of vacation time to heal from transition surgery. After this meeting, however, the company’s stance changed. Chavez recalled that in subsequent meetings with Torchia, he stated that he was very nervous about how her transition would negatively impact the business. Torchia told Chavez that she should discuss the topic with others only if she was asked. Further, although Chavez wore a uniform at work, Torchia warned that she could not wear a dress or skirt to or from work. Credit Nation’s vice president reinforced these ideas when she told Chavez that co-workers were uncomfortable with her transition.
Chavez also offered evidence that, after her transition, her job performance was subject to heightened scrutiny. And although Credit Nation used a progressive discipline policy, Chavez was not provided the benefit of this policy: Sleeping on the job was not one of the infractions for which an employee could be terminated immediately.
The 11th Circuit determined that the evidence was sufficient to show that a discriminatory animus existed and could have been a “motivating factor” in Chavez’s termination and that, therefore, the case could proceed to trial.
Chavez v. Credit Nation Auto Sales LLC, 11th Cir., No. 14-14596 (Jan. 14, 2016).
Professional Pointer: Employers must ensure that decisions related to employees are made solely on the basis of legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons; the mere suggestion of discriminatory animus could expose employers to unexpected liability.
Candace D. Embry is an attorney with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Philadelphia.
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