Court Finds Worker Failed To Prove Discharge Was Racially Motivated

A federal appellate court recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by an African-American manager who claimed that his discharge was racially motivated because he dated (and subsequently married) a white hourly employee. According to the court, the worker failed to establish a prima facie case of race discrimination, and even if he could, there was no evidence that the company’s explanation for his discharge was a pretext for unlawful bias. Ellis v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 07-2811, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (April 29, 2008).

Factual Background

Gerald Ellis, who is African-American, worked as a hub supervisor at United Parcel Service’s (UPS) Indianapolis sorting facility. In December 2000, Ellis began dating Glenda Greathouse, a white hourly employee who worked at UPS’ phone center. Under the company’s nonfraternization policy, management-level employees are not allowed to have a romantic relationship with any hourly employee.

For more than three years, Ellis kept the relationship quiet. In early 2004, however, UPS employee relations manager Brenda Baker learned that the two were dating and notified Ellis’ supervisor, Angela Wade. Ellis admitted to Wade that he was dating Greathouse. Wade then told Ellis that he was “crazy” for dating Greathouse because the relationship violated UPS’ nonfraternization policy. She also told Ellis that he or Greathouse would have to resign or Ellis would be fired.

Shortly thereafter, Ellis met with Kenny Walker, the human resources manager for the Indiana district. During the meeting, Walker also explain-ed to Ellis that his relationship with Greathouse violated company policy and that he had to “rectify the situation.” According to Ellis, he understood that Walker expected him to end the affair.

Three days after the meeting, Ellis and Greathouse became engaged. In April 2005, they were married.

Several months later, Walker saw Ellis at a concert acting affectionately toward a white woman. After confirming that the woman was Greathouse, Walker met with Ellis (who noted that he and Greathouse were now married). Walker then asked Ellis to resign. When Ellis refused, Walker fired him for violating the nonfraternization policy and for dishonesty.

Ellis sued UPS under Title VII, alleging that he was fired because of his race and because he is married to a white woman. The trial judge dismissed the case and Ellis appealed.

Legal Analysis

The Seventh Circuit first noted that it had not yet decided whether an employer violates Title VII if it discriminates against an employee because he or she is involved in a relationship with a person of another race (though some courts have reached that decision). “[W]e need not address the issue now,” the court wrote, “because, even if discrimination on the basis of involvement in an interracial relationship constitutes illegal race discrimination, Ellis did not put forward enough evidence to survive summary judgment.”

To establish a prima facie case of race discrimination, Ellis must show that UPS treated managers who were dating hourly employees of the same race more favorably. Ellis identified 20 couples who he claimed were involved in same-race relationships that violated UPS’ policy, but were not fired or were given the opportunity to resign.

The Seventh Circuit held, however, that only those couples of which Walker was aware are relevant. According to the court, “Walker was not the decision-maker for most of the managers Ellis identifies” and “[f]or some of his other purported comparators, Ellis failed to offer any actionable evidence that they were involved in romantic relationships with UPS employees at all.” With regard to the two couples which had a romantic relationship and that Walker supervised, the court found that there was “no evidence that Walker treated the managers who were violating the nonfraternization policy more favorably than he treated Ellis.”

Even if Ellis could establish a prima facie case, the Seventh Circuit ruled, he failed to show that UPS’ stated reason for his discharge was a pretext for discrimination. Ellis claimed that UPS could not rely on his relationship with Greathouse as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing him because UPS did not have a uniform nonfraternization policy. According to Ellis, some versions of the policy “discourage” relationships between managers and hourly employees while others state that managers should “strictly avoid” such relationships. The Seventh Circuit disagreed with Ellis, noting that “although the policy may be expressed differently in various internal UPS documents, supervisors testified . . . that they understood the policy prohibited managers from dating hourly workers.” Moreover, Walker enforced the policy consistently among all managers and even advised Ellis in 2004 that the relationship violated the policy.

Based on the above evidence, the Seventh Circuit upheld the trial judge’s decision to dismiss Ellis’ case.

Practical Impact

According to John Henning, an attorney in the firm’s Indianapolis office: “The court’s decision reiterates that a properly drafted and uniformly applied nonfraternization policy is valid and enforceable and provides a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating managers and employees who violate the policy. The ruling also reinforces the importance of good communication between management and employees regarding workplace policies, and how such communication can minimize an employer’s exposure to Title VII liability.”

Note: This article was published in the May/June 2008 issue of The Employment Law Authority.

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