In two recent cases, the Eastern District of Virginia found that the plaintiffs weren’t able to establish claims of discrimination, because they weren’t able to establish that they met employers’ legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse employment action. These cases can offer helpful guidance for employers.
Employment Discrimination—Disparate Treatment
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Employment discrimination actions may be shown by direct evidence or through the burden-shifting framework outlined in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.
Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, first, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination. Next, the employer bears the burden of production and must articulate a non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If an employer establishes a non-discriminatory reason, then, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the employer’s articulated reason is a mere pretext, and that the true reason is discriminatory.
To establish a prima facie case of discrimination based on disparate treatment a plaintiff must show that he (1) is a member of a protected class, (2) suffered an adverse employment action, (3) met his employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse employment action, and (4) was treated differently from similarly situated employees outside his protected class.
Recently, in Billingsley v. Fed. Home Loan Mortg. Corp., the court found the plaintiff didn’t establish that he was meeting his employer’s legitimate expectations, and therefore, he did not make out a prima facie case of employment discrimination. There, the plaintiff, an African-American man was hired by Freddie Mac and terminated five months later. The plaintiff filed suit, claiming he was terminated due to race-based discrimination. However, his employer argued that the plaintiff hadn’t been meeting legitimate expectations. Specifically, the plaintiff’s supervisor had received complaints from customers about the plaintiff and had participated in at least two counseling sessions with the plaintiff in the weeks prior to his termination.
Additionally, the plaintiff had sent an insubordinate email to his supervisor and hadn’t been participating in required weekly calls. Based on these facts, the court determined that the plaintiff wasn’t able to show he was meeting his employer’s legitimate expectations, and thus didn’t meet his burden under the McDonnell Douglas framework.
Similarly, in Bellounis v. Middle-East Broadcasting Network, Inc., the court found the plaintiff was not meeting the legitimate employment expectations of her employer. There, the plaintiff was hired by Middle-East Broadcasting Inc. and later terminated. The plaintiff filed suit claiming she was terminated because of religious and sex discrimination. However, her employer established that she was written up twice for failure to follow her employer’s rules and received warnings on four occasions for insubordination and inappropriate comments.
The court determined that the plaintiff’s “unprofessional behavior, poor performance, and her employer’s raised concerns each constitute failure to meet the legitimate expectations of her employer.” Additionally, the court found that “self-serving testimony” and a “statement from a non-supervisory individual” are irrelevant and not sufficient to establish that a plaintiff was meeting an employer’s legitimate expectations. The plaintiff argued she didn’t have a history of poor performance, but only offered her own deposition testimony and statements from an individual that was not her supervisor as evidence.
However, the court found this was insufficient, holding that it is “the option of the employee’s supervisors” that control whether or not the employee was meeting expectations. The court concluded that the plaintiff failed “to substantiate her own opinion with evidence of record” and, thus, couldn’t satisfy an essential element so the court found for her employer.
What Does This Mean for Employers?
In both cases discussed above, the court found that the plaintiffs weren’t able to establish an essential element of their discrimination claims—that they were meeting the legitimate expectations of their employers at the time of their terminations. These cases highlight the importance for employers to have procedures in place for documenting employee performance issues and make sure these procedures are being followed properly. If an employee is performing at a level that doesn’t meet an employer’s expectations, this should be documented in writing, through a warning, performance review, or other procedure. Documenting performance issues as they arise creates a record that can be relied upon in the event of a discrimination action.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-991-7973. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.