Judge rejects motion for summary judgment from Swarthmore College in wrongful termination case

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jul 7, 2017

PHILADELPHIA – A wrongful termination case from a former public safety officer at Swarthmore College, predicated on an alleged incident of racial discrimination, has survived a motion for summary judgment from the college in federal court.

On June 27, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Michael M. Baylson denied the summary judgment motion filed by the College, on the grounds that there was no pertinent case law from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit which would call for dismissal of a wrongful termination case involving racial discrimination, based on the issue of comparators to a plaintiff.

Plaintiff Shelton O. Sneed’s employment discrimination case was brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, where Sneed, a former sergeant in defendant Swarthmore College’s Public Safety Department, claims the College discriminated against him because of his race in connection with the termination of his employment.

In response, the College moved for summary judgment on Mr. Sneed’s claim, arguing he was in fact terminated because he “interfered in a sexual harassment investigation pending against another public safety department employee, in contravention of the direct orders of his supervisor to stay out of it.”

“Under Section 1981 and well-settled Third Circuit case law, plaintiff has the initial burden of showing a prima facie case of race discrimination. Swarthmore concedes three of the four elements: Namely, that plaintiff is a member of a protected class, that he had satisfactorily performed the duties required by his position, and that he suffered an adverse employment action. The major dispute in this case arises out of the fourth element: Whether similarly-situated non-members of the protected class were treated more favorably, or an adverse job action occurred under circumstances that give rise to inference of discrimination,” Baylson stated.

Baylson said in reviewing the summary judgment motion, the District Court concluded there was no direct evidence of racial discrimination present in this record.

“Plaintiff’s opposition to defendant’s motion for summary judgment rests entirely on plaintiff’s attempts to show that 2 other employees, who were white males, were treated more favorably than plaintiff. Also, essential to plaintiff’s claim is that defendant did not offer plaintiff any so-called ‘progressive discipline,’ but terminated him upon learning of plaintiff’s interference in the sexual harassment investigation which was pending against another public safety department employee,” Baylson commented.

Baylson explained that Sneed’s brief “assembled detailed facts concerning eight other public safety department employees, none of whom were African-American, who arguably received less harsh treatment and/or ‘progressive discipline,’ upon violation of internal regulations”, but the College opposed this inclusion for a number of reasons.

“The College asserts that these individuals are not appropriate ‘comparators’ because five of them were subordinate to plaintiff, two others did not hold the same job or perform the same functions as plaintiff, and the eighth, although a Sergeant like plaintiff, committed a less serious infraction about which there is no admissible evidence. In support of its argument, the College cites several cases where other district courts have declined to consider subordinate employees as appropriate ‘comparators’ to a supervisor such as plaintiff,” Baylson said.

“However, the College does not cite, and this Court has not found, any Third Circuit case justifying this conclusion, and this Court is unwilling, in a case alleging racial discrimination, to find that there is no genuine issue of fact, and grant summary judgment against plaintiff. Instead, this Court believes that the comparator issue should be flushed out in a jury trial, with appropriate instructions to the jury. The College can assert its legal position at the close of plaintiff’s case, or if it is found liable, in post-trial motions,” Baylson concluded.

The plaintiff is represented by Robert T. Vance Jr. of the Law Offices of Robert T. Vance Jr., in Philadelphia.

The defendant is represented by Christopher J. Moran and Kali T. Wellington-James of Pepper Hamilton, in Philadelphia and Berwyn.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:16-cv-00043

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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