Holland, a black salesperson for Washington Homes, Inc., was discharged from his employment after his immediate supervisor transferred him to a less-desirable position. He was able to make out a prima face case of race discrimination because (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was fired; (3) his job evaluations were satisfactory; and (4) his position was filled by a similarly-qualified white candidate.
Washington Homes put forward uncontested evidence that it terminated Holland because its decisionmaker (DeCesaris) believed that Holland was making physical threats toward his supervisor. Although Holland denied he actually made the threats, that was irrelevant since it was uncontested that the decisionmaker believed that he did. Therefore, the employer proffered a legitmate, nondiscriminatory reason for the firing, shifting the burden back to the employee.
This is where things get interesting.
Holland then offered uncontested proof that Washington Homes provided the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation with an entirely different basis for Holland’s termination than its proffered reason: it reported that Holland had been "laid off" for lack of work. It also told the Department that his date of termination was later than it really was.
Normally, uncontested evidence that the employer lied and gave two inconsistent reasons for termination would satisfy the "pretext" element of the McDonnell-Douglas framework and entitle the plaintiff to a jury, but not here.
Instead, the Court proceeded to consider the employer's reason for the inconsistent positions, and it found the following:
Washington Homes claims it took these two steps to be charitable to Holland. By pushing his termination date a few days forward, Washington Homes allowed Holland’s retirement benefits to vest. Second, by reporting that Holland was laid off, Washington Homes allowed Holland to seek unemployment benefits from Maryland. Regardless of whether this was "stupid" and "criminal" under Maryland law (Reply Br. at 1), it does nothing to discredit DeCesaris’s statement that he fired Holland because he (the decisionmaker) believed that Holland had threatened his supervisor.Thus, the majority looked beyond the sheer mechanics of the McDonnell-Douglas framework and looked at the caliber of the evidence as a whole. It found that the evidence of pretext offered by the plaintiff was too weak to carry the day for the plaintiff in the mind of any reasonable juror. Even though the plaintiff technically offered evidence of pretext, the evidence was so easy to disprove that no reasonable juror could rely on it to cast doubt on the proffered nondiscriminatory reason.* * *That Washington Homes, as part of its employment reporting responsibilities, thereafter reported a different reason and date of termination to a state employment agency does not cast doubt on the decisionmaker’s proffered reason or create a genuine and material issue of fact. Rather, it shows later charity on the company’s part, and there is nothing in the record to suggest otherwise. In fact, Holland has put forth no evidence that contradicts Washington Homes’ assertion that it inaccurately reported his termination date and reason solely to benefit Holland. Moreover, Holland does not argue that the inaccurate reporting somehow benefitted Washington Homes, or that the company had some hidden motive.
Judge King wrote a strong dissenting opinion accusing the majority of usurping the jury's role as assesor of credibility: "Put simply, it is for a jury, not an appellate court, to decide whether Washington Homes was being charitable or, instead, that its conflicting positions constitute evidence of discriminatory misconduct. ... Because Washington Homes admittedly lied to the Maryland Agency, a jury, under settled evidentiary principles, including the maxim of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus ("false in one thing, false in all"), would be entitled to disregard all of its evidence concerning Holland’s termination." He felt the majority was viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the moving party: "Put simply, we should not — on summary judgment review — credit the position of an admitted liar."
Judge King's position is weakened, though, by the fact that the employee who fired Holland was not the same person who told the "charitable lie" to the unemployment agency. In the minds of the majority, the fact that the actors were not the same person was important. (See footnote 6). "[A]lthough a reasonable trier of fact would conclude that Washington Homes reported a different reason and date, when combined with the company’s innocuous reasoning for these decisions and Holland’s failure to present any other evidence — beyond baseless speculation — that DeCesaris’s stated reason was pretextual, that trier of fact 'would be hard-pressed to conclude that this established pretext.'" (citation omitted).
Judge King felt this determination went beyond the scope of the McDonnell-Douglas framework. Although I see his point, I think the majority was right to view the evidence in its totality to see if "sufficient evidence [existed] favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." In its view, because both the proffered reason for discharge and the proffered reason for the lie to the unemployment agency were uncontested, the majority felt there really was no other reasonable conclusion for the jurors to make but that the proffered, nondiscriminatory reason was the real reason for the termination.