Earlier this fall, a court dismissed the widely publicized case against celebrity cook, Paula Deen, stating a white plaintiff who witnessed discrimination against black employees did not suffer discrimination herself. Now, another court has dismissed another discrimination claim brought by a white employee, though the circumstances in this case are different from the Deen case.
Catherine Baker worked as a marketing director in charge of finding potential job applicants for a position at R. Lee Williams & Son Funeral Home. Baker’s boss sent her an email with instructions to exclude any “ethnic candidates,” including “blacks, east Indians, or Europeans with heavy accents.” Additionally, when Baker sent over application information regarding a person she believed to be a potential candidate, her boss replied with, “pretty sure this guy is black.” Baker then made it clear that she opposed and refused to participate in such racially discriminatory job screening, however her boss instructed her to continue to racially screen applicants because this “this was the way funeral homes worked.” Baker continued to refuse to engage in discriminatory behavior, and felt as if she had no choice but to resign from the job. She sent an email to her boss and her resignation was accepted. Baker brought two claims in federal court: one for retaliation for opposing the discriminatory activity and one for the discrimination itself.
Both federal and state laws prohibit harassment or other types of retaliation against applicants or employees who oppose discrimination or other unlawful activity, who complain or file a charge about discrimination in the workplace, or who participate in an employment discrimination proceeding, such as an investigation, hearing, or lawsuit. Retaliation can be any adverse action against an employee in hiring, job assignments, pay scale, promotions, training, benefits, termination, constructive discharge, or any other term or condition of employment. Though the funeral home argued that they took no adverse action against Baker, the court found that the fact she felt “forced to resign” may show constructive discharge, so the court is allowing the retaliation claim to proceed.
The district court recently dismissed Baker’s discrimination claim. The court reasoned that while Baker was instructed to discriminate against job applicants, there was no actual discrimination against her directly. Therefore, Baker did not have the right to bring a lawsuit, and a lawsuit would more appropriately be filed by applicants who were excluded based on their ethnicity or race. Even though Baker witnessed discriminatory activity, it was not enough to hold the employer liable in court for that activity. The court explained that not all white employees are barred from bringing discrimination claims. If the white employee has herself suffered discrimination (due to an interracial marriage, for example), she may succeed on a claim.
Discrimination lawsuits may be complicated, and so if you believe you have suffered any type of discrimination in the workplace, call the employment attorneys at HKM as soon as possible.