Plaintiffs have attempted a number of creative avenues to avoid the procedural and substantive limitations set forth under the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law (LEDL), which provides a statutory scheme to address employment discrimination. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently foreclosed one of these avenues and concluded that the LEDL provides the exclusive statutory basis for an employment discrimination case under Louisiana law. The court also held that the plaintiff in that case failed to show that the employer’s justification for its failure to promote her was pretextual, underscoring the high burden for plaintiffs in failure-to-promote cases. Roberson-King v. Louisiana Workforce Commission, No. 17-30899 (September 17, 2018).
Angela Roberson-King filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, alleging that her employer passed her over for a promotion to district supervisor because she was African-American in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Louisiana Civil Code Article 2315. The plaintiff began working for the State of Louisiana as an eligibility examiner with the Office of Family Support in November 1989. She was promoted to fraud investigator in 1993 and transferred to the Louisiana Workforce Commission in 2001, initially as a rehabilitation counselor. In 2013, she was promoted to rehabilitation counselor master.
The plaintiff had applied for the position of district supervisor. On October 16, 2014, the regional manager announced the selection of a Caucasian female employee for promotion to the position of district supervisor. The plaintiff alleged that the selection was based on discrimination against her based on her race. She further alleged that she was better qualified than the candidate who was selected, in particular because of her history of meeting production quotas.
The employer filed a motion to dismiss with respect to the plaintiff’s state law claims, arguing that the plaintiff failed to state a claim under Article 2315 because she could not sue for a tort claim under this article while also suing under a more specific anti-discrimination statute. The employer also filed a motion for summary judgment regarding the plaintiff’s Title VII claims, arguing that its reason for not promoting the plaintiff was because she was not the most competitive candidate for the position, which was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. Specifically, the chosen candidate had a certification that the plaintiff lacked. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana dismissed the plaintiff’s state law claims and granted summary judgment in favor of the employer with respect to the Title VII claims. The plaintiff appealed.
The Fifth Circuit’s Analysis
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed both the dismissal of the plaintiff’s tort claim and grant of summary judgment, respectively, and rejected the plaintiff’s renewed claims with respect to the alleged failure to promote her to district supervisor.
The court found that the plaintiff failed to allege a valid claim under Article 2315, which provides that “[e]very act whatever of man that causes damage to another obliges him by whose fault it happened to repair it.” Article 2315 is the basis of tort claims in Louisiana. The Fifth Circuit reviewed the trial court’s decision on this issue de novo and found that the protections of the LEDL, as the more specific statute, trump the general protection of Article 2315. Under Louisiana law, when two statutes conflict, the specific statute prevails against the more general statute. In particular, the court noted that the LEDL provides employees with specific protections, remedies, and procedural requirements. The court also noted the LEDL requires pre-suit notice and limited damages, while Article 2315 lacks such features. The Fifth Circuit further noted that the plaintiff had pointed to no Louisiana state court decisions permitting recovery for employment discrimination under Article 2315. As a result, the Fifth Circuit found that the Article 2315 claim was inconsistent with the LEDL and the district court correctly dismissed the claim.
Additionally, the court affirmed summary judgment in the employer’s favor on the plaintiff’s Title VII claim. The court noted that it was undisputed that the plaintiff established a prima facie case of discrimination: she was African-American, was qualified for the position, was not offered the position, and the individual who was offered the position was white. However, the court held that the employer had provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision—the other candidate’s status as a certified rehabilitation counselor, a certification that the plaintiff did not have. As a result, the burden shifted to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s asserted justification was pretextual. The court found that the plaintiff had not shown that she was “‘clearly better qualified’ (as opposed to merely better or as qualified)” than the chosen candidate. The court noted that “[t]o meet her burden to show that she was clearly better qualified, the plaintiff ‘must present evidence from which a jury could conclude that “no reasonable person, in the exercise of impartial judgment, could have chosen the candidate selected over the plaintiff for the job in question.”’” Both candidates held master’s degrees, were master counselors, and had some supervisory experience. Although the plaintiff had a longer tenure with the employer, the other candidate achieved status as a master counselor more quickly after joining the agency. Finally, the court noted that although the plaintiff had a somewhat better record of meeting production quotas, both candidates had fallen short twice in the period since the chosen candidate joined the agency. The Fifth Circuit held that “[a]ny difference in qualifications between the two candidates does not create a genuine issue of fact that [the plaintiff] was clearly better qualified for the district supervisor position.” As a result, the plaintiff failed to show that the employer’s decision was pretextual.
This case affirms Louisiana courts’ disfavor for exposing employers to liability under tort law for employment decisions. A high bar already exists to pursue a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in Louisiana. This case completely forecloses tort law as a basis for an employment discrimination claim. As a result, employers may want to be on the lookout for cases asserting these claims and know that an early dismissal should be sought for these claims. This case also underscores the high burden that a plaintiff must meet to challenge an employer’s decision in the promotion context.