As we continue the analysis of this week’s Connecticut Supreme Court decisions, the court also clarified how employees can prove their claims of discrimination in Perez-Dickson v. City of Bridgeport. It is the first opinion in some years to do so and employers (and practitioners) will likely want to cite this case on a going-forward basis because of that.
First, the court looked at whether proof on how the plaintiff was treated when compared to others was sufficient to support a claim of race discrimination.
In doing so, the court finally adopted language that is used in many other federal discrimination cases, namely that the other people must be “similarly situated in all material respects.” What does that mean? It means that “the plaintiff and those he maintains were similarly situated were subject to the same workplace standards and (2) . . . the conduct for which the employer imposed discipline was of comparable seriousness.” (Hey, it’s the court; things can only get so clear.)
But then the court addressed a second, more all-encompassing vision for how claims of discrimination should be handled by courts and juries. It is among the “cleanest” versions yet by the court on what is (or is not) required. Here’s the test:
In summary, when a plaintiff attempts to establish racial discrimination through the use of circumstantial evidence, the plaintiff must first present some evidence from which an inference may be drawn that other similarly situated individuals not in the protected class were treated more favorably than the plaintiff. … If the defendant then articulates a nondiscriminatory reason for the disparate treatment, the presumption of discrimination arising from the prima facie case drops from the picture. … The burden will then be on the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the employment action was discriminatory. Finally, although the evidence that a plaintiff presented in support of her prima facie case may be sufficient to satisfy her ultimate burden of proof, that will not necessarily be the case.
Finally, the court also addressed the role that statistics should play in employment discrimination cases. The language suggests that the court looks upon such statistics with disfavor. Standing alone, statistical evidence is sufficient to establish discriminatory intent in individual disparate treatment actions only when it shows a “stark pattern of discrimination . . . .”
The court concluded that the evidence offered by the employee was insufficient, as a matter of law, to support a claim of discrimination (despite what the jury may think).
Specifically, we must conclude that the plaintiff’s circumstantial evidence that the defendants treated seven white employees and four African-American employees more favorably than they treated her when she was accused of abusing a student in 2005 is insufficient as a matter of law to raise an inference of intentional racial discrimination.
And taken together, the “statistics” of the termination pattern reveal nothing.
The evidence in the present case simply does not reveal any pattern of disparate treatment on the basis of race, much less the “stark pattern” or “gross statistical disparities” that are required to prove such claims.
For employers, this case is important for understanding that establishing a race discrimination isn’t infinitely hard, it’s not easy either. This is not to suggest that Superior Courts are now going to grant summary judgment motions and directed version motions quickly, but it should be used by employers as strong ammunition for those motions regardless.