Friday, October 10, 2014

Torgerson's Twilight

"There is no 'discrimination case exception' to the application of summary judgment." Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F. 3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc).

For many years, 8th Circuit precedent held that courts should be reticent to grant summary judgment against plaintiffs in discrimination cases, because so much of the inquiry depends on inference. See, e.g., Breeding v. Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., 164 F.3d 1151, 1156 (8th Cir.1999) ("Summary judgment seldom should be granted in discrimination cases where inferences are often the basis of the claim...."); Peterson v. Scott County, 406 F.3d 515, 520 (8th Cir. 2005) ("Summary judgment should seldom be granted in employment discrimination cases because intent is often the central issue and claims are often based on inference."). In Torgerson, the Court en banc rejected that rule and instead declared -- correctly, in my view -- that there is no special standard of summary judgment applicable to discrimination cases.

Earlier this week, the 8th Circuit en banc issued an opinion in Johnson v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. (Bye for the majority; Smith, with Melloy and Kelly, dissenting). The case is a seemingly run-of-the-mill age discrimination case. Indeed, for anyone crying foul over Halbig going en banc in D.C., this case provides an excellent illustration of en banc review occurring "whenever judges feel like it." The majority in Johnson does not assert the existence of any circuit split, or the need to overturn prior panel precedent, or the need to announce a significant change or clarification of discrimination law. This was (in the majority's mind, at least) simple error correction, nothing more.

Still, I think Johnson encapsulates a lot of what is wrong with how the courts (or at least the 8th Circuit, with which I am most familiar) approach discrimination claims. In particular, to me it emphasizes that the Eighth Circuit's employment discrimination precedents have already fallen out of line with Torgerson's mandate. It seems clear that there remains a discrimination exception to normal summary judgment rules. The only difference is that, instead of applying a special standard favoring plaintiffs, now the court has constructed discrimination law to improperly advantage employers.

The universal standard for summary judgment, applicable to employment discrimination claims and civil claims generally, is well-established. The court asks if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and granting all reasonable inferences in favor to the non-moving party, creates a "genuine issue of material fact" such that a trial is necessary. Basically, the question is whether, if all reasonable factual disputes (and inferences derived thereto) are resolved in favor of the non-moving party, could that party win? If the answer is "yes", then summary judgment is inappropriate -- a jury should be the one to decide. In other words, at summary judgment the court does not ask how it, in its own independent judgment, would rule. It only is determining whether a reasonable jury could decide in favor of the non-moving party. In discrimination cases, this inquiry often comes down to how the courts appraise what sorts of evidence could allow a jury to reasonably infer that unlawful discrimination occurred.

This standard is well-known and well-trodden territory. It is also, I suggest, entirely incompatible with how the Eighth Circuit handles discrimination cases.

Take the treatment of "comparator analysis." Comparator analysis is simply the attempt by a plaintiff to present an inference of discrimination by comparing how he or she was treated to a similar employee who younger (or white, or male, or whatever). The Johnson court, citing well-worn Eighth Circuit case law, describes the standard for comparator analysis thusly:
[T]he test for whether someone is sufficiently similarly situated, as to be of use for comparison, is rigorous. See Bone v. G4S Youth Servs., LLC, 686 F.3d 948, 956 (8th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 1252 (2013). “[Johnson] must show that [he] and the employees outside of [his] protected group were ‘similarly situated in all relevant respects.’” Id. (quoting Rodgers v. U.S. Bank, N.A., 417 F.3d 845, 853 (8th Cir. 2005)). “[I]ndividuals used for comparison must have dealt with the same supervisor, have been subject to the same standards, and engaged in the same conduct without any mitigating or distinguishing circumstances.” Id. (quoting Clark v. Runyon, 218 F.3d 915, 918 (8th Cir. 2000))
Every time I read this standard, I'm shocked anew. The same supervisor, the same standards, the same conduct, under the same circumstances -- but different outcomes. If one can establish that, the casual observer would probably find that to be remarkably powerful evidence of discrimination. Or, in the Eighth Circuit, one has just enough to squeak past summary judgment.

In JBS USA, LLC v. Ridout, 716 F.3d 1079 (8th Cir. 2013), an Eighth Circuit panel tried to restore at least a semblance of sanity to comparator review. Quoting the Seventh Circuit, it observed that the "similarly situated co-worker inquiry is a search for a substantially similar employee, not for a clone." Taken literally, the orthodox comparator standard would exclude evidence where the other employee had engaged in objectively worse behavior (in Ridout, the comparison was between yelling on a loud factory floor versus hanging a mock KKK hood on the locker of a black employee). But Ridout also tried to drill down to the right way of viewing comparator evidence:
[T]he ideal comparator will match the characteristics of the plaintiff employee in as many respects as possible. While no employee is a precise clone of another, the probative value of comparator evidence will be greatest when the circumstances faced by the putative comparators are most similar to the plaintiff's. Where evidence demonstrates that a comparator engaged in acts of "comparable seriousness" but was disciplined differently, a factfinder may decide whether the differential treatment is attributable to discrimination or some other cause. (citations omitted)
What Ridout was trying to get at, I think, was the unremarkable proposition that the probativeness of a prospective comparator is a sliding scale. The more similar the comparator is to the plaintiff, the more persuasive the evidence it is. A perfect comparator would be remarkably persuasive. As the circumstances diverge, it becomes less persuasive. A decent but non-ideal comparator -- say, with the same supervisor and standards, with similar but not identical conduct in different circumstances -- well, one could argue either way. The company would argue that the conduct was materially different and the distinguishing circumstances explain the differential outcomes. The employee would contend that they are similar enough such that a jury can infer that discrimination (rather than the distinguishing characteristics) really motivated the hostile treatment. That sort of debate is precisely what we have juries for.

Of course, at some point if the situations are distinct enough it isn't really evidence at all. But the rule we have is Wonderland -- smoking gun evidence is the minimum threshold, decent-but-not-perfect evidence would be summarily rejected by any rational jury. This is nothing but a special discrimination exception to general summary judgment standards.

A similar double-standard is evident in how the court treats its obligation to view "the record as a whole." Johnson raised a variety of different arguments for why discrimination might be inferrable from the evidence:
For the reasons we have already discussed, the separate aspects of the record Johnson focuses on in his specific arguments do not raise genuine questions of material fact regarding whether Securitas’s asserted reasons for terminating him were pretext or whether age was the “but-for” reason for his termination. Johnson’s argument regarding the record as a whole is merely an amalgamation of the arguments we have already found unavailing.
As the dissent observes, the majority's analysis here "compartmentalizes" these arguments, finds them individually unpersuasive, and then "summarily dismisses Johnson's contention that the record as a whole contains questions of material fact." Again, this seems completely inconsistent with how summary judgment should be applied in civil cases. It is obvious that pieces of evidence, individually insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact, can do so in tandem (or in "amalgamation") with one another. It is precisely this mistake that caused the court, in Hathaway v. Runyon, 132 F.3d 1214, 1222 (8th Cir.1997), to caution that alleged instances of discrimination (there in the harassment context) should not be "carv[ed] into a series of discrete incidents."

Indeed, if we examine other cases predicated on circumstantial evidence (which is what an indirect discrimination case really is), this becomes even more obvious. In a suit for wrongful death, simply noting that the defendant had exchanged harsh words with the victim a week before she was stabbed is hardly enough to create a genuine dispute of material fact whether he caused her death. Evidence that the defendant was skilled with knives similarly would be insufficient on its own, as would evidence that he was in the neighborhood at the time of death. But amalgamated together, these individually-insufficient evidentiary arguments very well could send a case to a jury. In no other context would a court reject that sort of argument simply by referencing the individual insufficiency of its constituent parts.

It is possible that the real moral of this story is that, as a Seventh Circuit panel recently suggested, it is time to abandon to the McDonnell Douglas test altogether. If a plaintiff adduces evidence which could give rise to an inference of discrimination, and the defendant offers an alternative explanation that provides a legitimate defense for its action ... we have a dispute of fact. There's no reason to have a special set of hoops for plaintiffs to jump through before a jury gets to do its job. But whether such a drastic reform is necessary or not, even within the confines of McDonnell Douglas it is hard to assert with a straight face that courts are applying the same summary judgment standard as they do for other forms of civil litigation. There is once more an "employment discrimination" exception to summary judgment doctrine. The only thing different is the beneficiary.

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