Where a former female employee showed a hospital imposed lesser disciplinary action upon male employees for infractions similar to the one that led to her discharge, her sex discrimination claims can proceed, a federal appeals court has ruled, reversing summary judgment for the hospital. Jackson v. VHS Detroit Receiving Hospital, Inc., No. 15-1802 (6th Cir. Feb. 23, 2016).
Karon Jackson worked as a Mental Health Technician (MHT) in Detroit Receiving Hospital’s Mental Health Crisis Center. In September 2013, Jackson assisted a nurse with a patient discharge. Neither Jackson nor the nurse checked the patient’s wristband as required by hospital policy. The Hospital terminated their employment because the failure to check the patient’s wristband constituted a “major infraction” under the Hospital’s disciplinary policy.
Jackson sued the Hospital in federal district court alleging discrimination on the basis of her sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court granted the Hospital’s motion for summary judgment, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati, reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the district court.
The Sixth Circuit found that Jackson had established the male MHTs she claimed were treated differently than she were similarly situated to her. One male MHT, who also was subject to the requirement that he check patients’ wristbands before discharge, had escorted the incorrect patient out of the Crisis Center because he failed to check the patient’s wristband. This failure constituted a major infraction under the Hospital’s discipline policy. Similarly, as a result of his improper search of a patient who was carrying knives, a second male MHT was cited for violation of the same two major infractions for which Jackson was terminated. The Hospital did not terminate the employment of either of these male MHTs. Therefore, the Court found that Jackson established these similarly situated male employees were treated more favorably than she was.
The Court next examined whether Jackson met her burden to demonstrate the Hospital’s stated reason for discharging her was pretext for sex discrimination. The Hospital argued Jackson’s mistake was more egregious than those made by the two male MHTs, and thus warranted the more severe penalty of discharge. The Court disagreed, in part because the Hospital’s argument speculated on the harm that could have resulted from the mistakes by Jackson and the two male MHTs. The Court found Jackson met her burden and a reasonable jury could reject the Hospital’s proffered reasons for the difference in treatment.
While courts often refrain from second-guessing an employer’s decision to discipline or discharge an employee for policy violations, this restraint will not always allow an employer to avoid potential liability. Here, the similarity in circumstances between the policy violations was too great to permit summary judgment for the Hospital where there was an apparent disparity in the severity of discipline meted out to male employees, on the one hand, and to the female plaintiff, on the other. This case highlights the importance of consistent application of discipline for similar workplace offenses.