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Court Finds Client Remark About “Rednecks” To Be Direct Evidence Of Discrimination

I recently blogged about a case where a supervisor told an employee that she “[couldn’t] stand [his] black ass” in an altercation that culminated in the employee’s termination.  There, despite the closeness in time between the comment and the employment decision at issue, the court found insufficient evidence of unlawful discrimination, and the employer won the case.

More recently, a case out of Maryland’s federal district court demonstrates that a link between a discriminatory comment and an employment decision can provide enough evidence for an employee to survive summary judgment.  Ikome v. CSRA, LLC, No. PWG-17-3407 (D. Md. 7/19/19).

Ikome “is from Cameroon and has very dark skin[.]”  As an employee for CSRA, LLC (“CSRA”), Ikome led a team that secured a major contract — a project in North Carolina — on which he became the Project Manager.  Just two weeks later, CSRA replaced Ikome with another employee, Toliver, who is “African-American with significantly lighter skin.” Just a few months after that, CSRA terminated Ikome’s employment.

Ikome sued and claimed that when his supervisor, Balcke, told him (Ikome) that Toliver would be replacing him on the contract, Balcke also made a statement that “people in North Carolina” (aka the client) are “rednecks.”  Associating the term “rednecks” with racism, Ikome understood Balcke’s statement to mean that CSRA was replacing him with an individual whose skin was lighter in color and therefore “more acceptable” to the client.

CSRA never disputed that it replaced Ikome with Toliver, but argued that Balcke never made the “rednecks” comment. Alternatively, CSRA argued that Balcke’s alleged statement was a “stray remark” insufficient to support a discrimination claim.

The court was unpersuaded.  First, the court concluded that a reasonable juror could find that the term “redneck” connotes racism and bigotry.  Second, the court rejected CSRA’s “stray remark” argument.  Though it is true that isolated, stray remarks that are unconnected from the employment decision-making process are insufficient evidence of discrimination, the court reasoned, the comment at issue was not isolated or stray because Balcke made it during the very meeting in which he told Ikome that he was being removed from the project in North Carolina.  A reasonable juror could, therefore, find that the comment was linked to CSRA’s decision to replace Ikome with Toliver.  (The court, however, rejected Ikome’s claims of retaliation and unpaid wages.)

Tangentially, an EEOC guidance document explains the well-settled principle that, “[e]mployers may not rely on the discriminatory preferences of coworkers, customers, or clients as the basis for adverse employment actions in violation of Title VII.  An employment decision based on the discriminatory preferences of others is itself discriminatory.”  And, while such discrimination is never acceptable, the Ikome case demonstrates that when it occurs close enough in time to an adverse employment action, employers can pay the price.

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