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Fourth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment Based on Lack of Comparator Evidence

March 15, 2017

On March 7, 2017, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes North and South Carolina, upheld a trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the District of Columbia in a race discrimination lawsuit brought by a white former correctional officer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws.  The key issue in the case hinged on comparator evidence, specifically comparing the treatment of plaintiff to treatment other similarly situated employees had received.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision based upon its finding that the plaintiff failed to identify individuals who were similarly situated to her, but treated differently.   

In the case, Plaintiff Jacqueline Hurst, a former correctional officer, alleged that the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) racially discriminated against her when she was fired over a felony conviction for stopping payment on a check.  According to Ms. Hurst, similarly situated African-American officers were not terminated for similar infractions.  The federal trial court disagreed, noting that two of the comparator employees Ms. Hurst identified were not similarly situated because their background checks revealed only criminal offenses that predated their employment at DYRS, while Ms. Hurst had been found guilty of a felony while she was a DYRS employee.  While the case does not identify any new legal issue or theory, the ruling by the court at the summary judgment stage, prior to a trial, serves as a reminder to employers of the importance of treating employees the same and clearly identifying or distinguishing circumstances when personnel actions taken may appear to be different.

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