- Stray remarks, while "offensive," did not show that Texas Children's Hospital fired an employee based on race, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Eaglin v. Texas Children's Hospital, No. 19-20222 (5th Cir. Feb. 4, 2020)).
- Victoria Eaglin, who worked at a reception desk, was fired after the hospital investigated an incident and concluded that she had clocked in for a co-worker who was not at work at the time. Eaglin sued, alleging that her termination was based on race; in support of her claim, she alleged that, time to time, her supervisors made offensive comments. One supervisor "flipped" her hair and asked how much she paid for it, she said. That same supervisor also allegedly asked Eaglin if she ate watermelon and fried chicken on holidays. Another supervisor referred to Eaglin and a co-worker as the "black girls" and questioned whether it was professional to wear braids in the medical field, she said. A supervisor also occasionally made comments indicating that someone in the hospital's administration wanted to replace Eaglin with a Hispanic employee.
- A district court determined that the hospital had offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating her employment and granted it summary judgment. On appeal, the 5th Circuit affirmed, noting that "the statements — even if offensive — were either not made by someone with authority to terminate Eaglin's employment, were not proximate in time to her firing, or were not related to the termination decision."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employer from discriminating against an employee because of race. But, as this case illustrates, an employer may have a strong defense to such claims when it can show a nondiscriminatory reason for an adverse employment action. The 10th Circuit, for example, recently ruled that an employer's use of year-over-year profits 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, claiming age and gender bias.
Relevant to the specific allegations in Eaglin, employers may want to note that some jurisdictions have laws forbidding discrimination based on certain hair types and hair styles. Last summer, for example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a law explicitly banning discrimination on the basis of natural hair or hairstyle. Its provisions cover hair texture, "protective hairstyles" such as braids, locks and twists and other traits associated with race.
And while the Eaglin court noted that the alleged supervisor statements were merely "stray remarks" that didn't support the discrimination claim, HR pros can still conduct training to prevent stereotyping and offensive comments, as well as adopt policies to address such remarks if they occur. After all, experts say managers remain a leading cause of bias claims and should be provided with regular training on applicable federal, state and local laws. HR also can develop and implement policies that support diversity and inclusion.