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New Race Discrimination Case Potentially Imposes New Obligations On Human Resource Professionals

Written by: Charla Bizios Stevens

May 2007

On April 13, 2007 the appeal in the matter of EEOC v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company which was pending before the United States Supreme Court was withdrawn. The matter involved the appeal by Coca-Cola Bottling of a decision rendered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Oral arguments were to be heard by the high court just one week from the date of the withdrawal. The Court was prepared to decide the extent to which an employer can be held liable for race discrimination when the person who fires the employee is unaware of the worker's race. The decision could have far reaching implications on how employee termination decisions are made.

The case involved an employee in the position of senior merchandiser who had a preferred shift that never included working weekends. He was asked to work a weekend due to a staff shortage caused by a busy schedule of promotional activities for the company. Apparently the employee refused to work the weekend and allegedly said to his supervisor that he just might call in sick on Sunday. This allegation was disputed by the employee. The employee is African-American; the supervisor white. The two had a history which included some evidence of racial bias on the part of the supervisor.

The employee alleged that he became ill on Saturday night, sought outpatient medical treatment and then called in sick on Sunday. The manager reported the incident to the Human Resource Manager for the company who was located in another state, and she determined that the employee had been insubordinate. She did read the employee's personnel file and saw evidence of a previous similar complaint and terminated him. She had never met the employee and did not know he was African-American.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the HR manager should have made efforts to independently investigate the allegations before making a termination decision. She should, at a minimum, have asked the employee his side of the story. Upon investigating, she may have learned that the supervisor's own bias colored his description of the events. Due to the dismissal of the appeal, the matter will return to the trial court for disposition.

The case has sparked great controversy and discussion about the roles and responsibilities of human resource professionals. The implications are particularly serious for large, multi-state and even multi-site companies which centralize human resources at a particular location. The decision of the United States Supreme Court was highly anticipated.

At a minimum human resource managers must be careful about relying too heavily on subordinate managers when they have no personal familiarity with the employees at issue. HR must be in a position to filter through the potential biases of those from whom they are receiving information about individuals who are being disciplined.

Charla Bizios Stevens is a member of the Employment Law Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.A. Charla can be reached at 603-628-1363 or [email protected]. The McLane Law Firm is the largest full-service law firm in the State of New Hampshire, with offices in Concord, Manchester and Portsmouth.

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