Magazine article Workforce Management

Bias-Liability Case off High Court Docket

Magazine article Workforce Management

Bias-Liability Case off High Court Docket

Article excerpt

WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION

A closely watched discrimination case that the Supreme Court had been scheduled to hear April 18 has been withdrawn, leaving unresolved, for the moment, the question of whether a company can be held liable for discrimination by a subordinate supervisor, even if a higher-ranking official makes an employment decision unaware of the alleged bias.

BCI Coca-Cola Bottling v. EEOC was supposed to be argued before the high court last week. On April 12, however, BCI asked the court to dismiss the case, even though it has not reached an agreement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is suing BCI on behalf of an employee at the company's Albuquerque, New Mexico, operation. The action will be remanded to district court in New Mexico.

The employee, Stephen Peters, was dismissed in 2001 after failing to work on a special promotional weekend. His supervisor, Cesar Grado, told the human resources department in Phoenix that Peters had been insubordinate, but he did not recommend termination. Peters was fired by an HR manager after she reviewed Peters' file.

Peters sued, alleging that Grado was racially biased. The HR office did not know that Peters was African American.

The trial court ruled against Peters on summary judgment, saying he didn't prove that Grade's alleged discrimination influenced an employment decision made at a higher level of the company. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, found that Peters should get a trial. And now that the case has been removed from the Supreme Court's docket, that's what will happen.

"The withdrawal of this case represents a real loss to the employer community, the HR profession and to employees, because we missed an opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify what has clearly been a debate amongst the appellate circuits around the country," says Manesh Rath, a partner at Keller and Heckman in Washington. …

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