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Friday, June 15, 2007

4th Circuit Sends Another Discrimination Victim Packing

Two ultraconservative federal judges have just dealt another blow to working Americans. Just ask Dorn Holland. He alleged that he was discriminated against and eventually fired because he’s African American. Making a mockery of the Constitution and federal civil rights laws, Bush II nominee Allyson Duncan and Bush I nominee Karen Williams of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out his case.

Holland began working for Washington Homes as a sales manager in 1998, selling homes in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Holland had considerable success during his first few years with Washington Homes. He sold 89 of 91 homes in the community to which he was assigned and was named rookie of the year in 2000.

Despite his significant achievements, Holland felt that his supervisor was making a concerted effort to drive him out of the company because of his race. Holland was forced to share his commissions with a white co-worker who was not likewise required to share his commissions with Holland. Holland also did not get all of the perks his white co-workers received and he was repeatedly reassigned to less than desirable subdivisions. Ultimately, Holland was assigned to sell homes in what he considered to be a “blighted community.” Holland’s superiors told him that he would have success there because he “knew ‘those people’ and had ‘sold in that kind of community before.’” Holland viewed these actions as discriminatory. But shortly after Holland complained, he was fired for allegedly making threatening statements about his supervisor – charges Holland vehemently denied.

Holland brought suit against Washington Homes, claiming that he was discriminated against based on his race and retaliated against for alerting the company’s vice president to the alleged discrimination. Writing for the Court, Judge Williams held that Holland had not presented any evidence of pretext -- that the purported reason for the firing was not the true reason-- on the part of his employer.

The law requires that the Court view all the facts alleged by Holland as true. Judge Williams readily acknowledged this standard in her opinion. Nevertheless, Judge Williams then proceeded to accept without question the company’s explanation that it fired Holland because he threatened his supervisor, while blatantly discrediting Holland’s evidence to the contrary. Specifically, Holland presented evidence that the company had given a completely different explanation to the Maryland Department of Labor – that Holland had been terminated for lack of work. But even though the company had lied about why it terminated Holland – either to a state agency or a court or both – Judge Williams found that the company’s testimony was believable as a matter of law. Accordingly, she credited Washington Homes’ testimony over Holland’s, utterly disregarding the proper legal standard.

Judge Williams even acknowledged that some of Holland’s allegations “if true, would go far beyond showing pretext on Washington Homes’ part.” But she then stated that Holland had submitted no evidence to support his allegations, completely ignoring the fact that Holland’s testimony was evidence and that she was crediting the story of Washington Homes, inconsistencies and all, over Holland – something that can only be done by a jury.

Judge Robert King (Clinton) strongly dissented, indicating the mockery that the majority made of federal anti-discrimination law. He pointed out that Washington Homes had both provided conflicting stories about why Holland was fired, and committed a crime – lying to a state agency. He argued that a jury should have the chance to review the evidence and make a determination:

[T]he majority has viewed the conflicting evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, concluding that Washington Homes was being charitable to Holland in providing false information to the Maryland Agency and that it is being truthful now. On the contrary, we should — for summary judgment purposes — conclude that Washington Homes terminated Holland because of race and his previous complaints of discrimination, and that it is not being truthful when it asserts that Holland was terminated for threatening his supervisor. Put simply, we should not — on summary judgment review — credit the position of an admitted liar.
Holland’s case illustrates how ultraconservative judges, including those nominated by George W. Bush, are obliterating federal civil rights laws. These nominees may pledge to uphold the Constitution and abide by precedent. But once their lifetime appointments are secure, they unashamedly do neither. And there are certainly plenty more examples. See here, here, here, and here.

And it could get worse. President Bush nominated Judge Leslie Southwick, another federal circuit court of appeals nominee with a questionable record on race, for a lifetime appointment on the Fifth Circuit. His nomination is currently pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s time for the Senate to stand up and protect the rights of American workers by refusing to allow President Bush to pack the courts with judges who will further erode workplace discrimination laws. The Senate must take this stand lest far too many other Americans like Dorn Holland be denied their rights.

Holland v. Washington Homes, No. 06-1309 (4th Cir. 2007).

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