Court Elaborates On Types Of Evidence For Proof Of Discrimination
The recent case of Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight is hands down one of the best decisions I have come across in a long time.
It addresses gender discrimination, sex stereotyping, and a corporate culture of discrimination in a way few cases have. It’s simply a great case for employees – particularly for victims of sex discrimination.
What Happened In The Case
Merritt worked as a line haul truck drive for Old Dominion, a nationwide trucking company. As a line haul driver, Merritt made lengthy cross-country trips. She performed her duties without incident or complaint. At some point, Merritt became interested in becoming a pickup and delivery driver so she could work more regular hours and spend nights and weekends at home.
To prove that she could do the job, she filled in numerous times as a pickup and delivery driver, and once again performed the duties without incident or complaint.
When a permanent pickup and delivery position became available at Old Dominion’s Lynchburg Virginia terminal, Merritt talked to Bobby Howard, the terminal manager about it. Howard told her that he lacked the authority to fill the position and proceeded to hire a less experienced man for the job.
The following year another permanent pickup and delivery position became available in Lynchburg and Merritt again expressed an interest in the position to Howard. Once again, Merritt was passed over in favor of a less experienced male.
When Merritt asked why she was not hired, Howard told her that :
- it was decided and they could not let a woman have that position.
- the company did not really have women drivers in the city (as pick up and deliver drivers)
On another occasion he told her:
- the Regional VP was worried about hiring a female pickup and deliver driver because women were more injury prone and he was aftaid a female would get hurt
- the VP didn’t think a girl should have that position
Finally, a year later, Old Dominion hired Merritt to fill a permanent Pickup and Delivery position in Lynchburg. Merritt was placed on a ninety-day probationary and told she could lose her job if any performance problems arose. Male drivers were not subject to similar probationary terms.
For the next two years, Merritt performed her Pickup and Delivery duties without a problem. Unfortunately, she then suffered an ankle injury at work which was diagnosed as plantar fascititis with a superimposed strain. She was put on light duty work by her doctor at first, but a couple of months later, he gave her a clean bill of health.
When she attempted to return to her regular duties, Brian Stoddard, Vice President of Safety and Personnel, required Merritt to take a physical ability test (“PAT”), a full-body test divided into six components that evaluates the test taker’s general strength, agility, and cardiovascular endurance. The test was graded on a pass/fail basis. The PAT was created for Old Dominion to be used in the hiring process and had been used to evaluate potential hires, but only on a variable basis.
Merritt struggled with several segments of the test and received a failing grade. According to Merritt, the tasks she had problems with had nothing to do with her ankle. In one portion of the test, for example, Merritt was unable to place a box of weight on an overhead shelf simply because she was too short.
After receiving the results of Merritt’s PAT, Stoddard terminated Merritt’s employment. Merritt filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC and then filed a lawsuit in federal court in Western District of Virginia claiming that Old Dominion terminated her because of her gender in violation of Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The district court granted judgment against Merritt because it found that Old Dominion produced a legitimate reason for firing Merritt (she failed the PAT) and because she had not produced any evidence that Stoddard (the decision maker) harbored any “discriminatory animus” towards Merritt. Merritt appealed.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses
Title VII makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual on the basis of sex. The most prevalent method of establishing discrimination is under the burden-shifting framework set forth in the Supreme Court case of McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green which goes like this:
- The plaintiff makes out a prima facie case of discrimination
- The burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory justification for its allegedly discriminatory action
- If the employer carries this burden, the plaintiff then has an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the neutral reason offered by the employer was not a true reason but a pretext for discrimination.
Ultimately, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that he or she was a victim of intentional discrimination.
In this case, Old Dominion put forth its legitimate non discriminatory justification for discharging Merritt – her failure to pass the PAT. That proved, according to Old Dominion, that Merritt did not have the “requisite physical strength to safely perform the job duties.” Merritt insisted that this rationale was a pretext for discrimination.
The Court of Appeals agreed with Merritt and found that the “record as a whole supports Merritt’s claim that a jury could find that discrimination on the basis of gender was afoot."
According to the Court, Merritt produced plenty of evidence that Old Dominion’s explanation for her discharge was “unworthy of credence.” For example, Merritt’s doctor stated that there was nothing about Merritt’s medical condition which would have prevented her from performing her job duties as a Pickup and Delivery driver. As the Court pointed out:
Old Dominion terminated a good employee who, pre-injury, performed her job ably and without complaint and who, post-injury was both willing and able to report to this same job for work. These facts, if believed, would allow a jury to think Old Dominion was simply looking for a reason to get rid of Merritt.
In addition, the Court found that Merritt produced evidence of discriminatory intent. For one:
- Injured male employees did not have to take the PAT test
- Merritt produced evidence that the policy requiring all injured employees to take the PAT test did not exist
As the Court stated:
While a neutral policy serving Old Dominion’s legitimate business interests in public and employee safety could certainly be put in place, a trier of fact could reasonably find that Old Dominion’s selective application and ever-changing rationales for the PAT were designed to conceal intent to reserve the plum Pickup and Delivery positions for male drivers.
In addition, the district court ignored evidence of the corporate culture of discrimination produced by Merritt. The Court stated:
It is not unfair to observe that the corporate culture evinced a very specific yet pervasive aversion to the idea of a female Pickup and Delivery Drivers. Old Dominion employees, of all ranks, seemed to share a view that women were unfit for that position. …..
While the views of others are no proof of the views of Stoddard, at some point the corporate environment in which he worked places Stoddard’s own selective use of the PAT in Merritt’s case in a less neutral context.
In Lattieri v. Equant, ….[w]e deemed the plaintiff’s ‘powerful evidence showing a discriminatory attitude at her company of employment toward female managers’ sufficient to ‘allow a trier of fact to conclude that these discriminatory attitudes led to plaintiff’s ultimate termination.’ Likewise here.
The sum, the Court said:
Old Dominion fired an employee who was, according to the district court, able to do her job without assistance and in a satisfactory manner’ due to a treatable ankle injury, while hiding behind the results of a selectively administered physical fitness test that test that did not even purport to test the injury, and while dubiously claiming that its decision was compelled by a late-blooming policy, all in the context of, to put it mildly, a sexually stereotype work environment.
In this case, it not any single piece of evidence but rather the evidence taken in its entirety that leads us to believe Merritt deserves a trial….
Based on all of the foregoing reasons, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Old Dominion and remand for trial on Merritt’s Title VII claim.
This case helps women in circumstances similar to Merritt’s – firefighters, police officers, constructions workers, etc. --- those in male dominated physical professions who still face widespread discrimination because they are simply not wanted.
Just this past fall, I counseled a female firefighter who was repeatedly seeking a promotion, and forced to take numerous tests that were not required of her male counterparts. It’s not an unusual scenario though this type of discrimination is precisely what Title VII is aimed to prevent. The Merritt case, no doubt, should help women fight for equality in the workplace.
In a broad sense, this case hits so many of the issues that come up in discrimination cases all of the time – “stray remarks,” “post- hoc justifications,” “shifting explanations,” the parsing of evidence by district court judges -- to name a few, and frames them in a way that will be extremely helpful to employees and their lawyers in discrimination litigation in the future.