Sixth Circuit Looks To Consistent Management For Defenses To Discrimination Claims

Written exclusively for Chubbworks

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court's dismissal of a lawsuit involving allegations that the employer violated state law when it terminated two women employed at a healthcare center.

In December of 2020, the two women hosted a Christmas party, after work hours and outside of work, at which many coworkers were in attendance. Two weeks later, the employer terminated the two women. The employer informed the women that their decision to risk exposing coworkers to COVID-19 violated the organization's COVID-19 directives and constituted "poor judgment."

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs presented several claims, including violation of Tennessee's Human Rights Act. The district court agreed with the defendant's argument that the plaintiffs failed to substantiate their claim, and dismissed the lawsuit.

On appeal, the plaintiffs maintained the district court misjudged the case with respect to their claims under the state's Human Rights Act, thus forfeiting review of their other claims.

Specifically, the plaintiffs contended their employer terminated them for "hosting [a] religious party." However, because two women were the only employees terminated, even though many other employees attended, religion could not have been the basis for termination, said the court. Also, the plaintiffs provided no other likely reasoning for illegal discrimination in their termination.

For these, and other reasons, the appellate court confirmed the decision from the district court. Rhonda Lauren Dahlquist; Sheila Knight v. Amedisys, Inc. (6th Cir., Case No. 22-5154/2022).

Commentary and Checklist

According to the courts in the Sixth Circuit, the employer in the above case showed no bias against religious practices, but only acted consistently as to the organization’s established pandemic directives applied to all employees.

Consistency in managing all aspects of employment is essential to limiting your risk of discrimination claims. Termination is a particularly risky employment action, and is a step that should never be taken without a clear non-discriminatory reason to support it. However, it is just one area of employment that requires attention to consistency and potential risk.

Keep in mind the following areas of employment that can present the risk of discrimination:

  • Application of policies and procedures
  • Recruitment and hiring
  • Compensation
  • Promotions
  • Training opportunities
  • Work assignments
  • Transfer requests
  • Employee leave requests
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Performance evaluations; and
  • Discipline.
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