Disciplining employees for violations of company policy is, as a general rule, a good thing for an employer to follow. However, when a company disciplines employees differently for the same offense, perceptions of discrimination (rightly or wrongly) can creep in.
A new case released this afternoon from the United States District Court illustrates that. In Norris v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad Co.(Case No. 06-cv-00439)(Arterton, J.), the Court denied an employer’s summary judgment on some discrimination claims because it concluded that there was a triable issue as to whether an employee was disciplined more severely because of his race. Indeed, the court also relied on an apparent statement by the supervisor that the discipline was harsher than in past years.
Readers to this blog should understand that denials of summary judgment are not uncommon in employment discrimination cases and that the decision is not a final ruling on the merits of the case. Indeed, the employer in this case was able to get summary judgment (i.e. get the claims dismissed) on several other claims that were brought by the employee.
The case is a good illustration, though, about how small variations in punishment — even over a multiple year period — may lead to the foundation of a discrimination claim.
Now, there may be very valid reasons why the discipline that an employer imposes is different than others. Suppose, that the employee had been warned previously, that fact might warrant a harsher punishment for a repeat violation. Or suppose that the employer was "cracking down" on these types of incidents and had notified its employees of the consequences of violations of policy. In either of the two instances, the employer’s decision will certainly be bolstered if the employer identifies, in writing, at the time of the incident, why the punishment is different than others. It still may not defeat summary judgment, but it will help bolster a company’s arguments later that the discipline was well-thought out and fair.
A review of the briefs for summary judgment spells out much more history and facts than this blog post. You can find the memorandum in support of summary judgment here, with the opposition brief here and the reply brief here. Combined with the court’s analysis, it provides some insights into how the federal courts review complaints that are based on multiple causes of action and addresses several related causes of action.