A recent decision, Jackson v. Time Warner Cable Administration LLC, 2018 WL 2371024 (S.D.N.Y. 16-cv-8639 May 18, 2018), illustrates that the proper focus in an employment discrimination case is not whether an employer’s non-discriminatory explanation for the allegedly wrongful action is reliable or true, but rather what motivated the employer.
In this case, defendant terminated plaintiff shortly after plaintiff was involved in a workplace dispute with a co-worker (Roberts). She claimed that “she was terminated based on her race, sex, and age, pointing to the fact the she, a black female, was terminated while Roberts, a younger Hispanic male, was not.”
Defendant argued that “even if Jackson has made out a prima facie case, it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because it had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for her termination and no rational finder of fact could conclude that TWC’s decision to terminate Jackson was based on racial animus.”
In response, plaintiff asserted, inter alia, that the alleged non-discriminatory justification was “not true.”
The court explained why this was insufficient:
None of these arguments touch upon the relevant issue: whether Jackson’s termination was motivated in whole or in part by racial animus. Rather, Jackson is predominantly “attacking the reliability of the evidence supporting [TWC’s] conclusions.” McPherson v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., 457 F.3d 211, 216 (2d Cir. 2006) (emphasis in original). “In a discrimination case, however, [courts] are decidedly not interested in the truth of the allegations against plaintiff. [Courts] are interested in what “motivated the employer . . . .” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting U.S. Postal Serv. Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 716 (1983)). For this reason, it is irrelevant, at least for the purpose of proving racial discrimination, whether a dislike for Jackson, caused by Jackson’s filing of an NLRB charge against Baker, impacted Baker’s investigation or whether Jackson actually committed the conduct underlying her prior written warnings. There is no evidence that the NLRB charge against Baker, who is also a black female, had anything to do with race-based unfair labor practices. The argument that Baker skewed the results of her investigation out of non-racial animus arising from the NLRB matter militates against an inference of racial discrimination. And, to the extent that offering additional, nondiscriminatory reasons for Jackson’s termination could be relevant, TWC has not wavered from its original justification. (See, e.g., Dkt. 29 at 14–15, 18–19; Dkt. 40 at 10).
With respect to the relevant issue—motive—Jackson has taken a scattershot approach, claiming at various points in this litigation that TWC terminated her because of her race, because of her sex, because of her age, because she filed a complaint with the NLRB, because she was a union member, because she filed grievances, because TWC was downsizing as the result of a merger, because she earned a high salary, and because a supervisor disliked her. (AC ¶ 54; Dkt. 30-2 at 3–8, 15). The only evidence that Jackson has presented in an attempt to show that her termination was motivated by racial animus is that Roberts, who is Hispanic, was suspended instead of terminated. No rational jury could find beyond a preponderance of the evidence, based on this fact in conjunction with all surrounding evidence, that TWC terminated Jackson because of her race.
In addition, plaintiff’s claim failed because she and Roberts – her proffered “comparator” – were not “similarly situated” “in all material respects.” Specifically:
Although Jackson and Roberts both yelled at each other at work and Roberts, according to Jackson, had been suspended previously “for using profanity at a foreman,” (Dkt. 37 ¶ 7), Baker’s investigation into the dispute between Jackson and Roberts revealed that Jackson initiated the dispute, left her desk, approached Roberts, and stood over him until he also stood up, at which point they both began yelling. Jackson’s role in starting and then escalating the dispute materially differentiates her from Roberts and suffices to justify disparities in punishment. Further, Roberts had been disciplined for a dispute with a coworker only once in the past, while Jackson had three prior written warnings stemming from disputes with coworkers. Without sufficient similarity between Jackson and Roberts, the different punishments, standing alone, do not “permit a rational finder of fact to infer that the defendant’s employment decision was more likely than not based in whole or in part on discrimination.”
Therefore, the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed plaintiff’s claims.