4th Circuit: Black Workers May Pursue Class-Action Racial Discrimination Claim

Posted by Sean P. CecilMay 13, 20150 Comments

Black workers at Nucor Steel in Charleston, SC sued claiming a racially hostile environment and discriminatory promotion practices. However, the trial court judge decertified their class on the promotions claim. 

Holding that the trial judge erred in his interpretation of a 2011 class-action case wherein the US Supreme Court ruled that female Wal-mart employees failed to prove their claims were similar enough to satisfy the "commonality" requirement of class certification, a divided 4th Circuit panel remanded the case with instructions to certify the class. Originally, the district court denied class certification on both claims, and the 4th Circuit ordered them certified; the district court de-certified after the Wal-mart case. 

For a second time, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial judge erred in refusing to certify the workers' class where: 

1. Statistics indicated that promotions at Nucor depended in part on whether an individual was black or white; 

2. Substantial anecdotal evidence suggests discrimination in specific promotions decisions in multiple plant departments; 

3. significant evidence suggests promotions decisions were made in the context of a racially hostile work environment. 

Based upon those factors, the court stated, the district court "fundamentally misapprehended the reach of Wal-Mart and its application to the workers' promotion class" and the court remanded for re- certification."  

The workers' promotions claim rests on alternative theories of liability under Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination because of an individual's “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. The promotions claim first alleges a pattern or practice of racially disparate treatment in promotions decisions. Second, it charges that Nucor's facially neutral promotions policies and procedures had a racially disparate impact. Both theories are grounded in a statistical analysis of racial disparities in job promotions at the plant combined with anecdotal evidence of discrimination. 

The ruling is more about class-certification requirements than the merits of the claims, but it makes for an interesting read and is a huge win for SC workers facing what appears to be pernicious racial discrimination. This case is pretty old  and has been to the 4th Circuit twice now without any trial- it is time for these workers to get their day in court!