Recently, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal district court’s ruling dismissing an Ohio safety officer’s claims that he was forced to resign from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety in 2010 due to racial discrimination.
In Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, Mark Laster, an African American man, had worked for the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety for more than 23 years. During his employment, he claimed that he was treated less favorably than other employees in similar situations. For example, Laster believed that he was subjected to greater scrutiny, that policies were selectively enforced against him, and that his employer stood back and permitted individual employees to discriminate against or harass Laster. Laster believed that at least part of his treatment was due to his race. After reporting many instances of harassment to his employers, he eventually filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims against his former employer.
The district court found in favor of the City of Kalamazoo and Laster appealed. The Sixth Circuit applied strict scrutiny to the circumstances of his case, which is required for racial discrimination cases involving government bodies. For a government body to pass strict scrutiny, it must be shown that it had a compelling government interest, that the law or policy was narrowly tailored to achieve that interest, and that the law or policy was the least restrictive means for achieving that interest. Strict scrutiny is used for race, national origin, or alienage situations, compared to intermediate scrutiny for gender and rational basis (the lowest scrutiny) for nearly everything else.
The Sixth Circuit looked at what was presented by Laster as evidence of his former employer’s discrimination and/or retaliation. One was an evaluation downgrade in 2007, brought about allegedly because of discrimination and Laster’s complaints about it. Laster’s 2006 evaluation was changed from “satisfactory” to “needs improvement.” Another was a denied request to attend an outside training program. Laster was the first employee to ever make such a request, and when he was denied, no reason was given. Two days later, Laster learned that some of his white co-workers were approved to go on the trip with all expenses paid. Laster applied again, but was told that if he wanted to attend, he needed to pay half of the costs, or $400. Other examples included being denied use of the meeting room, not being invited to a meeting, unequal punishment for the same offense, and an anti-Obama screen saver.
His claims were set against the stated reasons for his forced resignation: that in 2010, while Laster was off duty, he was publicly intoxicated during an Obama appearance and crashed his car into a Michigan State Police cruiser and flashed his badge before parking in a secured area, in violation of federal law. An investigation was launched, and Laster claims that he retired because he had been told (incorrectly, it turned out) that he would not received a pension if he were terminated as a result.
The Court found that while Laster had presented some evidence of him being treated more poorly than his co-workers, he did not make the case that this conduct was undertaken with the specific intent to make Laster resign. Therefore, Laster did not meet his burden of showing discrimination against him. However, the Court believed that the district court should have analyzed separately whether Laster’s former employer retaliated against him, rather than just dismiss his retaliation claim along with the discrimination claim. The Court therefore affirmed the lower court ruling on discrimination and remanded the case back to the lower court so the retaliation claim could be reconsidered.
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