CHICAGO (CN) – After a white employee for the city park district reported a possible incident of child abuse involving a black child and his aunt, her employer committed race discrimination by firing her, the 7th Circuit found.
Cathleen Schandelmeier-Bartels supervised the South Shore Cultural Center’s after-school program and summer camp for about three months in 2006 before she was terminated.
On July 31, a child was suspended from the camp for misbehavior, and his aunt came to collect him. The ruling notes that the child, referred to as J.J., and his aunt were both black.
From another room, Schandelmeier heard “the sound of flesh being struck and a child screaming.”
Following the noise, Schandelmeier found “J.J.’s aunt kneeling over him with her arm raised above her head, a belt looped in her hand,” the ruling states. “J.J. had a welt on his arm and was crying.”
Schandelmeier reported the incident to cultural center director Andrea Adams. Adams, who is also black, explained the aunt’s actions as “a cultural thing,” saying “this is the way we discipline children in our culture.”
Believing she had witnessed child abuse, Schandelmeier reported the incident to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
The next morning, Adams called Schandelmeier into her office where J.J.’s aunt, who had been visited by police earlier that morning, was waiting.
“When Schandelmeier tried to explain, and Adams learned that Schandelmeier had not seen the aunt’s belt connect with J.J.’s flesh, Adams screamed and ‘went ballistic,'” according to the ruling. “She said, ‘You didn’t see the impact of the belt? You saw nothing!’ By way of illustration, Adams told Schandelmeier that she had once tried to hit her daughter with a belt but hit the wall instead, and her daughter still screamed. She reiterated that ‘this is the way we discipline children in our culture,’ and she told Schandelmeier that it was a cultural difference that Schandelmeier did not understand. Adams then demanded, ‘Who [was Schandelmeier] to try to tell this woman how to raise her child?'” (Brackets in original.)
“Schandelmeier responded that she had friends who were black and who did not beat their children,” the ruling continues. “Adams countered, ‘[Y]our friends who are black tell you that they don’t beat their children and then they go home and beat their children.’ She then ordered Schandelmeier to leave her office, saying ‘I can’t stand the sight of you, Cathleen.’ Schandelmeier testified that she had never been yelled at like that in her adult life, and that Adams was ‘violently angry’ and ‘spitting mad’ during this exchange.”
Adams then wrote an e-mail to her supervisors, complaining of Schandelmeier’s poor job performance and calling the J.J. incident “the last straw.” Schandelmeier was fired that evening.
A jury said Schandelmeier’s firing was racially motivated and awarded the woman $200,000. But an Illinois federal judge reversed, finding that Adams’s racial bias did not affect the firing decision.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit weighed conflicting precedent and the statutory language, debating how much influence a racist employee must have over the firing decision in order for the employer to be liable.
“The Supreme Court has not yet resolved the circumstances under which an employer may be held liable based on the discriminatory intent of employees who influence but do not actually make the ultimate employment decision,” Judge Daniel Hamilton wrote for the court’s three-judge panel.
Since the high court just heard oral arguments on a case that involves such issues, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the 7th Circuit says guidance is forthcoming.
In the case at hand, the federal appeals court determined that a racist employee need not exercise “singular influence” over the firing decision for a Title VII claim to be valid. Employers can also be held liable for lesser degrees of influence.
The court also rejected Chicago Park District’s argument that the decision to fire Schandelmeier had been pending for weeks. As proof of the claim, the organization submitted an e-mail from a supervisor that asked human resources personnel about procedures for correcting Schandelmeier’s behavior or terminating her.
But an abstract discussion of poor performance, or the procedures to remedy it, does not entirely clear away allegations of racial motivation, the court found. The jury verdict that Adams’s recommendation led to the firing was reasonable because no other investigation of Schandelmeier’s performance had been conducted.
Finding the $200,000 damages award was excessive, however, the judges said Schandelmeier should get $30,000 plus attorneys’ fees.