Legal Briefs: Demonstrating discrimination

klunney@govexec.com

Every Friday on GovExec.com, Legal Briefs reviews cases that involve, or provide valuable lessons to, federal managers. We report on the decisions of a wide range of review panels, including the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and federal courts.

A Supreme Court decision this week will make it easier for federal employees to win discrimination suits filed against agencies.

The high court unanimously ruled that employees in both the public and private sectors do not need to offer direct evidence of race, age, or sex discrimination on the job to win such cases. In some instances, simply disproving an employer's stated reason for adverse action may suffice.

Most bias cases do not involve outright discrimination and are therefore based primarily on circumstantial evidence.

The decision gives juries the freedom to figure out whether or not discrimination is the true motive behind an employer's adverse action against an employee.

The court overturned a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that favored the defendant in the case Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products Inc.. Roger Reeves sued the Sanderson firm in 1996, alleging age discrimination after the company fired him in 1995 after 40 years on the job. Reeves, a supervisor at the Mississippi plant, was 57.

Sanderson said Reeves was let go because of shoddy work. Reeves offered evidence to refute that claim-evidence the Supreme Court said was important in demonstrating discrimination as a possible motive.

"Once the employer's justification [for adverse action] has been eliminated, discrimination may well be the most likely alternative explanation, especially since the employer is in the best position to put forth the actual reason for its decision," wrote Justice O'Connor for the court.

Lesson: When you say you don't discriminate, you better be able to back it up.

Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. (99-536), June 12, 2000.

Caught in the Hatch Act

When Tahir Rizvi decided he wanted to run for public office, his employer, the Army Corps of Engineers, informed him that federal employees are prohibited from seeking political office under the Hatch Act.

According to the Office of Special Counsel, in August 1999, Rizvi nonetheless decided to seek the Democratic party nomination for a slot on the Madison County School Board in Alabama.

In February and March 2000, the Corps of Engineers in Huntsville, Ala., sent an e-mail message to employees-including Rizvi-about the restrictions of the Hatch Act. Apparently Rizvi was undeterred. On March 27, he left a message on his government voice mail indicating he was going on extended leave to run for political office. He also handed out cards to colleagues informing them of his candidacy.

The Office of Special Counsel filed a petition June 2 calling for disciplinary action against Rizvi for violating the Hatch Act. Federal employees can be suspended or fired for violations of the Hatch Act.

Lesson: If you're going to flagrantly violate the Hatch Act, expect to be punished.

MSPB CB-1216-00-0021-T-1, June 2, 2000.

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