CHICAGO - Kraft Foods must face a race-discrimination trial, even though it pointed out that another worker of the same minority group as the plaintiffs did not face similar discrimination, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Discrimination against one member of a minority group violates federal discrimination law no matter how well another member of the same minority may have been treated, said the unanimous ruling of a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “would have little force if an employer could defeat a claim of discrimination by treating a single member of the protected class in accordance with the law.”
The suit alleges that support services supervisor Peter Michalec's dislike for Latinos led Kraft to institute a number of disciplinary actions and ultimately costing some of the plaintiffs their jobs, according to Courthouse News Service.
Jose Diaz and Ramon Peña, both Kraft employees for more than 10 years, claimed Michalec would make them scrub parking lots, clean sewers and perform other disliked tasks "as often as possible" during cold winter months but did not assign these tasks to non-Latino employees.
In 2008, Kraft was outsourcing jobs in its Glenview Tech Center. Diaz and Peña's positions were slotted for elimination. Rather than pursing employment options with other companies, both applied for the position of Kraft senior technician, which had become available around that time.
But Michalec manipulated the hiring process to bar them from applying, the pair claimed, excluding them from a list of interested employees. By the time Diaz and Peña realized they were not on the list and complained to the human resources department, the position had already been filled.
Two Latino employees were selected for the positions, though Diaz and Peña claimed they were more qualified.
The suit also included claims by Alberto Robles that he was paid less than he deserved because Kraft refused to promote him. Michalec made a number of discriminatory statements to him, Robles claimed.
When Robles asked about the promotion, Michalec called him a "gold-digger." Additionally, when Robles was having a heart attack in 2005, Michalec allegedly yelled: "Get the hell out of my office. Go die somewhere else."
In his ruling granting summary judgment for Kraft, U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman found that Michalec's failure to assign non-Latino employees to the undesirable tasks could have indicated bias.
"Yet the court backed off from this conclusion because Raul Fernandez, another Hispanic employee, was not assigned to the same unwanted tasks," the 7th Circuit summarized. "The court reasoned that ultimately the evidence did not support an inference of discrimination because at least one Hispanic employee was not discriminated against in any way."
"We reject this line of analysis," Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-judge panel. "Title VII would have little force if an employer could defeat a claim of discrimination by treating a single member of the protected class in accordance with the law."
"Suppose the district court's view carried the day: a female employee suffering from discrimination on the basis of her sex would have to establish that her employer discriminated against all women in the workplace to assert a sex discrimination claim," Wood added. "That, sensibly, is not how Title VII operates."
Title VII claims need allege only discrimination against an individual for racial reasons, not systematic discrimination against a race.
"There is enough evidence here to create a question for the trier of fact whether ethnic bias motivated Michalec's decision not to hire Diaz or Peña for the sanitation positions," the court concluded.
Diaz and Peña's case was remanded for trial, but the court affirmed the dismissal of Robles' case.
"Calling someone a gold-digger is offensive, and ordering someone suffering from a heart attack to leave is utterly inexplicable, but neither of these incidents establishes ethnic bias," Wood wrote.