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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