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Federal Court Decision Clarifies Employment Discrimination Evidence Standards

Last month, the 7th U.S Court of Appeals clarified evidentiary standards used in discrimination cases, rectifying long held misunderstandings as to how courts should assess what trial courts should consider when assessing discrimination claims.[1] The clarification was outlined in the 7th Circuit’s appeal of the trial court’s decision in Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises.[2]

In Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Ortiz worked as a freight broker for Werner Enterprises until he was fired in 2012 for falsifying business records.[3] Ortiz argued that he had not falsified business records, but rather, corrected incorrect records and that the Werner Enterprise fired him because of his ethnicity.[4] Ortiz is a Mexican-American who contends that over the course of his employment two of his managers referred to him using ethnic slurs, a practice “that increased in frequency and intensity in the months leading up” to his termination."[5]

In order to determine whether discrimination had occurred, the trial court’s judge looked at the evidence through the direct and indirect methods.[6] The direct method requires evidence of blatant discrimination including the actor specifically admitting to discriminatory behavior.[7] The indirect method requires evidence of suspicious circumstances that might allow an inference of discrimination.[8] The 7th Circuit took issue with the trial court’s use of “a convincing mosaic of discrimination” as the evidentiary standard that Ortiz had to meet in order to demonstrate discrimination was present through the indirect method.[9]

In its decision, the 7th Circuit highlighted the use of “a convincing mosaic of discrimination” as a legal standard as inappropriate, an error that has been mimicked in numerous other trial court cases and even some 7th Circuit cases.[10] Instead, the 7th Circuit advised the trial court to the more objective standard established in previous court cases.[11] In Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, this meant refocusing on the sole question of "whether a reasonable juror could conclude that Ortiz would have kept his job if he had a different ethnicity, and everything remained the same.”[12] Since the trial court did not use this standard, the 7th Circuit ruled in favor of Ortiz in appeal, and sent the case back to the trial court for further review under the appropriate legal standard.[13]

The 7th Circuit’s decision will have a widespread impact on how discrimination cases will be decided and already has. In the future, any trial court decision that utilizes “convincing mosaic of discrimination” in an employment discrimination case will be “subject to summary reversal” so that the trial court can evaluate the evidence under the correct standard.[14] The wide spread use of the term in the past makes this court decision one that is sure to have an impact on the way in which trial courts look at evidence in employment discrimination cases.

If you believe you may have been discriminated against or are actively being discriminated against, feel free to contact the Law Offices of Fern Trevino to schedule a consultation.

[1] Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises NO. 15-2574 (Aug. 19, 2016)

[2] Id.

[3] Oritiz v. Werner Enterprises 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82952 (N.D. Ill. 2015)

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises NO. 15-2574 (Aug. 19, 2016)

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

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