- An Alabama university may not have treated a black female professor well, but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not "replace employers' notions about fair dealing in the workplace with that of judges," the 11th Cir. ruled, citing a previous opinion (Herron-Williams v. Alabama State University, No. 18-10875 (11th Cir. Feb. 7, 2020)).
- Sharron Herron-Williams, a black female political science professor, brought a Title VII claim against Alabama State University (ASU) claiming race and gender discrimination after she was relieved of several administrative appointments at ASU. She also claimed the school retaliated against her after she sent an email to its president complaining about the allegedly discriminatory treatment.
- The trial court granted summary judgment to the university, reasoning she failed to make a prima facie case for race or gender discrimination because she had not "identified an adequate comparator outside her protected classes who was treated more favorably than she was," nor had she presented enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that ASU had unlawfully discriminated against her. The 11th Cir. affirmed. The court noted an employer may fire a worker for a "good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous fact, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not a discriminatory reason." The appeals court also ruled that the email Herron-Williams sent was not legally protected activity.
When employers have legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for an adverse employment action, they generally have a strong legal defense if a complaint is filed. For example, an employer's use of year-over-year profit to determine which of its account executives to let go was a nondiscriminatory reason for terminating the employment of the account executive who challenged his firing, the 10th Circuit recently ruled.
Still, it's generally accepted that supervisors should be trained to proceed carefully when disciplining or terminating a worker who has engaged in a legally protected activity. While protected activity, such as making a harassment complaint or a leave request, doesn't insulate employees from discipline, sources have told HR Dive previously that HR pros may want to carefully review plans to discipline an employee who recently engaged in such activity.
Informal complaints may constitute protected activity under Title VII, as the 11th Circuit noted in its opinion. The professor's email, however, did not qualify. The professor mentioned in the email several instances of negative treatment such as a lack of necessary computer equipment and an alleged attempt to bring back a white male professor to replace her. Herron-Williams described the university's conduct as "unfathomable" and said that it "cannot be explained." The appeals court ruled that the "single, conclusory sentence" was the only mention of discrimination in the 15-paragraph email. "[I]t is not objectively reasonable to presume that, simply because an employee has been subjected to seeming inexplicable negative treatment, the true reason for the treatment must be unlawful discrimination," the court said.