Eleventh Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment Ruling in Discrimination Case—Reminding District Court that in Status-based Discrimination Claims, But-for Causation Not Required

Posted on May 30, 2014

This week, the Eleventh Circuit issued a ruling in Barthelus v. G4S Government Solutions, Inc., No. 13-14121 (May 27, 2014), reversing the district court’s award of summary judgment to an employer and finding that there was a material issue of fact regarding whether the employers’ grounds for termination were merely pretext. In so ruling, the Eleventh Circuit pointed out that the claims of the plaintiff were in the “status-based category of discrimination,” and thus the employee was not required to show that the causal link between the injury and wrong was so close that the injury would not have occurred but for the act. Instead, the plaintiff must only show that the motive to discriminate was one of the motives, even if accompanied by other, lawful motives. Barthelus, p. 16.

Barthelus, a black Haitian, was employed by G4S as the Senior Network Administrator. Barthelus claimed that he was subjected to discrimination in various forms during his employment with G4S. He asserted that he was denied a promotion because he had a Haitian accent, that he failed to receive a pay increase when all other non-black, non-Haitian employees in the I.T. department did, that he was denied extra days off that were provided to a non-black, non-Haitian employee, that he was required to cut his lunch break short on a number of occasions, although other similarly situated employees outside the protected class were not, that he was denied leave other individuals outside the protected class were permitted, and that he was only senior title employee not to have an office. Barthelus asserted that he had complained to Human Resources regarding the alleged discrimination. Barthelus was terminated, allegedly because of performance issues, only two months after his complaint.

The employer’s defense was that Barthelus had received a number of poor performance reviews and that he had been warned that he would be terminated if his performance did not improve. G4S also claimed that it was only after receiving a variety of poor performance reviews and warnings that Barthelus complained to Human Resources.

The district court concluded that the poor performance reviews satisfied G4S’s burden to show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Barthelus’s termination. The district court further found that Barthelus could not then meet his burden of showing that this reason was pretext for discrimination. In so ruling, the district court relied upon the fact that Barthelus could not point to a replacement outside the protected class, that the statistical evidence he provided was not probative, that although his supervisor’s comment that he had a communication issue with his accent may have contributed to a circumstantial case for pretext, it could not on its own support a finding of pretext, and that his extensive history of negative performance reviews followed by his own self -serving disagreements with those reviews were evidence of pretext.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed and found that there was a material issue of fact as to whether G4S’s stated reason for termination was merely pretext. The Eleventh Circuit pointed out that the district court had overlooked the fact that Barthelus had alleged that he “had been subjected to a pattern of workplace discrimination based on race and national origin.” Id., p. 12. Furthermore, found the Eleventh Circuit, in relying upon an alleged history of negative reviews, the district court “discounted” certain facts, including that a number of Barthelus’s reviews were positive and that an audit of G4S’s I.T. department conducted by a third party only a year prior to Barthelus’s termination had concluded that the overall security posture of the company was above par and secure. Id., pp. 12-14. The Eleventh Circuit pointed out that the counts considered by it were in the “status-based” category of discrimination and that a plaintiff making such a claim does not need to show that the injury would not have occurred but for the alleged discrimination. Instead, the plaintiff must show that the motive to discriminate was one of the motives of the employer, even if there were other lawful motives that led to the decision. Id., p. 16. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that material facts of issue were present regarding pretext, “especially when Barthelus’s performance reviews are considered in light of the TSA audits.” Id., p. 15.

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