Decisions in 2006 regarding discrimination in the workplace centered largely on a theme of time and evidence. The court regularly held that the evidence of discrimination must be clear and that the legal action must be filed in a timely manner. The idea that a person can have been the victim of discrimination for years and have taken no action was dismissed as untimely. A case alleging racial discrimination was held to have insufficient proof of intent and in another case the court held that a union suing an employer for prejudicial hiring practices also did not submit sufficient proof.
Finally, the court held that when an employer takes discriminatory action it does not have to be within the confines of the workplace to be discriminatory. First, in a case against Good Year Tire and Rubber Company, the plaintiff claimed that in her 18 years with Good Year, she had routinely been paid a smaller wage than her male counterparts. A local jury awarded her damages based on a series of wage-related decisions going back 19 years.
However, the 11th Circuit Court held that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was untimely in that her complaint was not based on actions taken in the last 180 days according to the summation of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, 421 F. 3d 1169 (11th Cir 08/23/2005) (Runkel, 2007. The court did not rule on the merit of the case, but held that the statute restricts the time frame in which the alleged discrimination was to have occurred (Runkel, 2007).
The plaintiff has appealed the decision to the U. S. Supreme Court and in May, 2007, Justice Samuel Alito writing for the court, affirmed the lower court’s ruling “Ledbetter v. Good Year”, 2007). Next, in case versus Tyson Foods the court held that use of the term “boy” is not enough proof of racial animus to sustain a ruling alleging discrimination, but reverse a portion of the lower court’s ruling which had claimed that a racial descriptor was required to accompany the word to prove animus. In Ash v. Tyson Foods, 126 S. Ct. 195 (02/21/2006), the court wrote, “”Although it is true the disputed word will not always be evidence of racial animus, it does not follow that the term, standing alone, is always benign.
The speaker’s meaning may depend on various factors including context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage. Insofar as the Court of Appeals held that modifiers or qualifications are necessary in all instances to render the disputed term probative of bias, the court’s decision is erroneous. (Runkel, 2007). That means the court needs more information that just a word to determine discrimination. The court ruling says that to prove discrimination, the plaintiff must show more than just a misjudgment by the hiring authority of perceived qualifications. It must show that ‘disparities of qualifications must be or such weight and significance” that a reasonable person could not have made the hiring decision which was made (“Ash v. Tyson, 2006).
This decision dovetails with the court’s decision in IBEW v. Mississippi Power & Light, 442 F. 3d 313 (5th Cir 03/02/2006). The union had argues that the employer’s standard for employment was discriminatory in that the cut-off point on the standardized tests was inherently discriminatory. The court did not dispute the merit of the claim, but ruled that the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff and that the union had failed to prove that there was another way that the employer could adequately determine employment eligibility. (Runkel, 2007)
Finally, the court held that when an employer is accused of retaliatory action, it does not have to be limited to the confines of the work environment. In Burlington Northern v. White, 126 S. Ct. 2405 (06/22/2006), the court upheld the defendant’s claim that her employer had retaliated against her by moving her from one position to another and by initially trying to suspend her without pay, requiring that she file a grievance through the union to receive reinstatement and her back pay.
The court held, “We conclude that the anti-retaliation provision does not confine the actions and harms it forbids to those that are related to employment or occur at the workplace. We also conclude that the provision covers those (and only those) employer actions that would have been materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant. In the present context that means that the employer’s actions must be harmful to the point that they could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. (Runkel, 2007).
The court further held that retaliatory practices do not have to include financial loss to be actionable. (Runkel, 2007) The overwhelming effect of these court ruling on future graduates is a trend within employment law toward the defense of the employer. These cases tend to indicate that the court has placed the entire burden of proof on the employee when it comes to discrimination cases and expects that the employee can make a clear case for their claim, rather than relying on vague innuendoes, such as in the Tyson case.
For employees, this can be a difficult precedence in that other employees are unlikely to back a person’s claim regarding workplace discrimination especially when they would then have such stringent requirements in proving their own retaliation case. This is also likely to have a chilling effect on employees who feel they are being mistreated because of the burden of proof. The reality is that for any African-American man, the mere use of the word boy is inflammatory, especially in the south.
Though the word was not accompanied by any racial descriptor, the court held that intonation and other context can be used to determine the word’s intent. For an African-American in the South, that is the context and proving what his supervisor was thinking places too great a burden on the plaintiff. The Tyson case in particular makes it difficult for a person who is the victim of subtle racism to prove it and the Ledbetter cases reiterates that the person must deal with any perceived discrimination within 6 months of its occurrence, compounding the difficulty in proving a case.