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7th Circuit reverses ‘troubling’ ruling in discrimination case

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Because a District Court judge made several errors in analyzing the evidence brought by an African-American electrician in his lawsuit alleging he wasn’t hired because of his race, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed judgment in favor of the company.

Matthew Whitfield brought an action alleging failure to hire and violation of the Civil Rights Act against Navistar after the company continually hired less-qualified white applicants for open electrical positions. He first applied in 1996 but wasn’t immediately hired because some years of his experience could not be verified. In 1998, while his application was still pending, he received his journeyman card from the union which showed he had at least eight years of experience, as was necessary to be hired. But he was never hired.

According to the court record, the cover letter in his file had the word “Black” on it, but no one with Navistar could explain why it was there. In 2001, Whitfield and 26 others sued Navistar, alleging discrimination and a racially hostile work environment. Most people settled that case, but Whitfield’s hiring discrimination claim went to trial.

Chief Judge Richard Young refused to admit evidence from the class trial, which was proffered one day into trial, saying it was untimely. Young then determined Whitfield’s evidence didn’t imply any discrimination, he did not meet Navistar’s unstated qualifications for the job, and he did not offer any compelling comparator evidence.

The 7th Circuit found “troubling” the determination that there is no evidentiary link between the cover page and an intent to discriminate.

“First, this strikes us as evidence of racial coding, which strongly infers discrimination,” wrote Judge Richard Cudahy. “Second, the district court apparently ignored rather extensive evidence of the racially hostile environment within which this cover page was attached to Whitfield’s personnel file.”

Young concluded that the file could mean that “Black” was written for affirmative action purposes, but no one from Navistar offered that as an explanation. The 7th Circuit also concluded that the District Court committed a “more egregious” error by giving enormous weight to the fact that Navistar hired a female, African-American electrician around the time Whitfield’s application was pending.

“In doing so, the district court again shut its eyes to the entire record, choosing an implausible view of the evidence, and, at the same time, misapplied the law,” Cudahy wrote.

The evidence shows that Whitfield had more experience that many of the white electricians hired at the time he applied, and that some even had none of the skills that Navistar claimed Whitfield lacked, thus justifying their decision to not hire him. Any errors that were in Whitfield’s application were rectified by 1998, yet he was still not hired, the 7th Circuit noted.

The case, Matthew Whitfield v. International Truck and Engine Corp., 13-1876, is remanded for further proceedings.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

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  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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