Racial Bias is in the Air

Time to examine the latest race discrimination suit making headlines.  Two dozen black pilots allege in a lawsuit that United Continental Holdings, the parent of United Airlines, passed them over for management promotions because of their race.  The pilots allege a long history of discriminatory behavior on behalf of United across multiple U.S. states.  The suit was ultimately filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.  These pilots further claim the carrier punished them by withholding promotions and special assignments because of their participation steaming from a charge with the Equal Employment opportunity commission in 2010.  As always, United vehemently denies all of the allegations made by the pilots.

What are the chances of success for these pilots? What do they have to prove in order to be successful? Let’s take a look at the law (Title VII) and what is required in order to prevail in a race discrimination suit for disparate treatment.

Claims of discrimination under Title VII  are governed by a tripartite burden-shifting test established by McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). Under McDonnell Douglas, the pilots first must make a prima facie case for race discrimination. The prima facie elements of a claim for disparate treatment are that: (1) the pilots are a member of a protected class under the statute; (2) the pilots applied and were qualified for a job or promotion for which United was seeking applicants; (3) despite their qualifications, they were rejected; and (4) the positions remained open and United continued to seek applicants, or the positions were given to someone outside the protected class.

Once the aforementioned is established, the burden then shifts to United to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for not selecting the pilots for promotion.  If United satisfies this burden, the pilots must prove that the alleged legitimate reasons offered by United were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination.  To sum this all up, the ultimate burden lies with the pilots to prove that they were passed over for promotion because of their race.

As you can see, the pilots have a pretty heavy burden facing them.  Even if they are able to demonstrate all of the above elements, including providing statistical evidence that United tended to hire more whites over minorities for managerial positions, all United is required to show under the law is a “legitimate reason” for this trend.  Often in cases where denial of promotion is the primary cause of action, an employer may provide a variety of of reasons for promoting one candidate over another, such as, familiarity with a unit, years of experience in a particular field, or educational background.  Once United is able to establish that reason, the pilots are required to show that they were clearly better qualified than the employee selected for the promotion at issue.  However, the bar is set very high for this kind of evidence because differences in qualifications are generally not probative evidence of discrimination unless those disparities are of such weight and significance that no reasonable person, in the exercise of unbiased judgment, could have chosen the candidate selected over the pilots for the job in question.

So let’s see how this all plays out.  Despite the burden being extremely high in race discrimination actions, it is still very possible that these pilots have a legitimate chance of prevailing if they can show they were clearly the better candidates for the managerial positions.

If you believe you or your family member was and/or has been discriminated against in the workplace, please do not hesitate to contact the employment discrimination attorneys at the Law Office of Risman & Risman, P.C. at (212) 233-6400 or contact us online.