“Just so everyone in this courtroom is clear on the point,” plaintiff’s lawyer Justin Case said, “you fired my client Katy O’Brien for a relatively innocuous policy violation, which she immediately tried to correct? Is that right?”
Martin Banks, Katy’s boss at the Platinum Ingot Casino, shrugged. “I wouldn’t say ‘innocuous.’ As table supervisor, Katy was involved, along with the dealer, in a bad card shuffle in the blackjack pit. We have a firm policy on bad shuffles, because they compromise the integrity of the game.”
“But how firm is your policy, really?” Case asked. “So firm that when another table supervisor, Charlie Jackson, did the same kind of thing as my client – without trying to correct it – you fired him? But no, you didn’t. You just suspended Mr. Jackson for three days.”
“The cases weren’t identical,” Martin retorted.
“Indeed,” the lawyer said. “Mr. Jackson is black, while my client is white.”
“That had nothing to do with it!” Martin sputtered.
Lawyers on his case
“Oh, I don’t know,” Case said.
He paused, then went on. “Let’s talk a minute about another table supervisor, Tawanda Stickley, who is also black. She was fired over another bad shuffle incident, and her lawyers called you after they heard about Ms. O’Brien’s problem. I understand they asked what you had done about Ms. O’Brien, in light of Ms. Stickley’s termination.”
“I did get a call from her lawyers, yes,” Martin said.
Keeping the ‘white girl’?
“And afterward,” Case continued, “didn’t you go to the casino’s director of operations and say, and I quote: ‘Do you think I wanted to fire Katy? I didn’t want to fire Katy, but how could I keep the white girl?’ ”
“I don’t remember saying that,” Martin said.
“But the secretary who heard you remembers distinctly,” the lawyer said. “I submit to this court that you were trying to maintain some kind of ill-advised racial balance in your terminations, and in doing so you violated my client’s rights and blatantly discriminated against her.”
Did Katy win her reverse discrimination case?
Yes, Katy won an important victory when a federal appeals court said Martin’s comment – “How could I keep the white girl” – amounted to direct evidence of racial discrimination.
The court ordered the case to go to trial, leaving the casino the choice of settling out of court or facing further expensive and time-consuming legal proceedings.
Most supervisors are well aware of the potential for lawsuits when members of “protected classes” – women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, people over 40, etc. – are treated less favorably than employees not in those classes.
But the best preventive for any lawsuit is treating everyone in a similar fashion under similar circumstances. Muddle-headed attempts to achieve some kind of artificial balance – “If I do this to/for two male employees I must do this to/for two female employees” – are likely to create more problems than they solve.
Cite: Ondricko v. MGM Grand Detroit, No. 10-2133, 6th Cir., 8/8/12. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.
Subscribe to Leadership Blog
Get the latest research on workplace learning with weekly posts delivered to your inbox