A Maryland federal judge has ruled that an employer must stand trial on claims by a former white employee who alleged she was terminated to set an example of the company’s commitment to fight racism. In Wethje v. CACI-ISS, 2021 U.S. Dist. Lexis 34543 (D. Md. 2/24/21), Judge Paula Xinis denied the company’s motion for summary judgement on the employee’s claims of race discrimination under Title VII and Section 1981.
The case arose when CACI eliminated Wethje’s position in July 2017 and replaced her with an African-American employee who had made internal complaints of discrimination. Prior to eliminating Wethje’s position, the company’s Executive Vice President of Business Development notified CACI’s upper management of his desire to immediately terminate Wethje to make it appear as if he were taking a “strong” position against race discrimination. The reason the EVP was targeting Wethje is that she had admittedly told an African-American employee that she “served several masters.” The African-American employee found this comment racially derogatory, and complained about it to the EVP.
Despite the EVP’s desire to immediately terminate Wethje, CACI’s Human Resources Department did not support termination. Wethje had admitted her comment was insensitive, and insisted the racial implications had not crossed her mind when she made the remark. Human Resources recommended the Wethje receive counseling for the incident.
The EVP remained committed to his plan to remove Wethje from CACI. After receiving pushback from Human Resources, he decided to eliminate Wethje’s position and assign all of her staff to an African-American employee who had complained that another white manager had demoted and harassed her and demeaned other African-American employees.
In denying CACI’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Xinis stated that “a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that [the EVP] essentially scapegoated Wethje to defuse the growing claims of race discrimination” at the company. Judge Xinis also took note of the “varied rationales” for termination offered by the company in finding there to be sufficient evidence of pretext in the record.
The Wethje decision is a good reminder to employers that employment discrimination laws protect persons of all races and colors. Employers need to be careful that their efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace not go so far as to illegally discriminate against employees who may not fall into a historically underrepresented classification.