7th Circuit Affirms Jury Verdict in Favor of Plaintiff in Title VII Disparate Discipline Lawsuit

On August 11, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff, a terminated employee who claimed that he was fired because of his race, African-American, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").  Morris v. BNSF Railway Company, No. 19-2808 & 19-2913 (7th Cir. Aug. 11, 2020).  The crux of his employment discrimination lawsuit was disparate discipline--that he was disciplined more harshly than similarly situated non-African-American employees who committed the same or similar violations of the same company policy.  Specifically, he claimed that he was subjected to a formal disciplinary process that culminated in his termination, while non-African-American employees were given a more lenient informal disciplinary process that practically guaranteed that they would not be terminated.

The plaintiff worked for nine years as a train conductor.  The company fired him after he committed two speeding infractions during a single shift.  He filed suit under Title VII, alleging that the company punished him more severely than non-African-American employees who committed similar safety violations.  His case proceeded to trial; and the jury found in his favor.  Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  There is liability for disparate discipline under Title VII based on different treatment for discriminatory reasons.  The plaintiff introduced evidence that 21 non-African-American engineers or conductors, who were also responsible for the train's safety, and were bound by the same standards, rules, and disciplinary processes, committed the same or similar safety violations but were not fired.  

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him $375,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.  The court also awarded him $531,292 in back pay, and $137,450 in front pay. 

The defendant appealed on various grounds, but the 7th Circuit affirmed.  Among other things, the 7th Circuit found that there were no legal shortcomings in the plaintiff's comparator evidence.  He presented clear evidence to allow the jury to see the other employees' race or ethnicity, work histories, safety infractions, and discipline, including whether the other employees benefited from informal alternative handling.  He introduced comprehensible and detailed evidence about how other employees were treated after committing safety violations.  The 7th Circuit stated that "[t]he law requires no more, and we have seen much less in other cases."