- The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month reversed a multi-million-dollar jury verdict for a former engineer of automaker Ford who alleged racial discrimination and retaliation (Khalaf v. Ford Motor Co., Nos. 19-1435/1468 (6th Cir. Aug. 30, 2020)).
- In 2018, a Michigan federal jury ordered Ford to pay the ex-engineer $15 million in punitive damages in addition to $1.7 million in pension and retirement losses and $100,000 in emotional-distress damages. The district court later reduced the punitive damages figure to $300,000, however, finding that the $15 million figure was "'so excessive as to shock the conscience,'" per court documents.
- But the 6th Circuit held that the district court erred when it denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment. The 6th Circuit also said it found "insufficient evidence" for the former engineer's claims that he was subjected to a hostile work environment and later demoted, placed on a performance enhancement plan and terminated in retaliation for instances of protected activity.
Ford is not the first employer to prevail against national-origin discrimination claims this year. In January, the 3rd Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of American Airlines in a suit brought by a former customer agent who said she was asked, "'where do you come from?,'" during an interview for a promotion.
In a statement to HR Dive, a Ford spokesperson said the court's ruling "completely vindicates" the defendants. "Ford has always maintained that the jury's verdict was deeply flawed and unjust," the spokesperson said.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics including race and national origin. National origin discrimination may include treating employees or applicants unfavorably "because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background," according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Documentation of performance reviews and other workplace interactions and decisions is key to ensuring an effective defense against lawsuits, sources previously told HR Dive. Tips for proper documentation include using clear, straightforward language that also avoids usage of absolute expressions, stating clear expectations for workers and referencing specific conduct. In particular, the 6th Circuit noted that the decision to place the ex-engineer on a performance enhancement plan was "based on documented evidence of [plaintiff's] sub-par job performance."