McGuinness v. Hall

Decision Date21 May 2001
Docket NumberDocket No. 00-7894
Citation263 F.3d 49
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

White female former employee sued employer for race and gender discrimination in its severance pay policy. District court (Mark D. Fox, M.J.), granted summary judgment to employer and dismissed plaintiff's claims, holding, inter alia, that employee could not show that she was similarly situated to a black male former employee to whom defendant provided an arguably larger severance package. Plaintiff appealed. The Court of Appeals, Leval, J., holds (1) the plaintiff was sufficiently similarly situated to black male employee to establish the minimal prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework, (2) plaintiff did not proffer evidence sufficient to raise a jury question of discrimination on the basis of her gender, but (3) plaintiff did proffer evidence sufficient to raise a jury question of discrimination on the basis of her race.

Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Derick C. January, Brinton & January, White Plains, N.Y., for plaintiff-appellant.

Josephine Trovini, Plunkett & Jaffe, P.C., White Plains, N.Y., for defendant-appellee.

Before: Leval and Parker, Circuit Judges, and Keenan, District Judge.*

Leval, Circuit Judge

Plaintiff appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Mark D. Fox, Magistrate Judge), granting summary judgment to defendant and dismissing plaintiff's claims of race and gender discrimination. The magistrate judge ruled that plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of race discrimination because she could not show that similarly situated employees had been treated differently with respect to severance pay. In particular, the magistrate judge ruled -- relying on district court opinions and on its interpretation of our decision in Shumway v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 118 F.3d 60 (2d Cir. 1997) -- that the similarly situated employee "must have reported to the same supervisor as the plaintiff, must have been subject to the same standards governing performance, evaluation, and discipline, and must have engaged in conduct similar to Plaintiff[] without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances that would distinguish their conduct or the appropriate discipline for it." District Ct. Op. at 6 (quoting Francis v. Runyon, 928 F. Supp. 195, 203 (E.D.N.Y. 1996) (quoting Mazzella v. RCA Global Communications, Inc., 642 F. Supp. 1531, 1547 (S.D.N.Y. 1986)) (emphasis added). The magistrate judge also ruled that even if plaintiff had established a prima facie case of discrimination, she had not proffered evidence sufficient to rebut the nondiscriminatory reason defendant advanced as the reason for its severance pay practices.

We disagree with these rulings. Plaintiff has made out a prima facie case that she was treated differently on the basis of her gender and her race, and she has proffered evidence that could support a determination that the defendant's nondiscriminatory explanation for its actions was false. Plaintiff has nonetheless not proffered evidence from which a trier of fact could draw a reasonable inference of gender discrimination. She has, however, satisfied her burden to present evidence that could support a reasonable finding that she was treated differently on the basis of her race. We therefore vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings on the issue of race discrimination.


The relevant facts, construed here in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, may be stated briefly. Defendant Lincoln Hall operates a residential program for troubled youth in Lincolndale, New York. On April 2, 1996, Lincoln Hall hired plaintiff Sheila McGuinness, a white woman, as its Director of Human Resources. As part of a general reorganization initiated by Lincoln Hall's then-Executive Director, Lincoln Hall also arranged to hire - among other people -- Carlton Mitchell, a black man, as Deputy Director of Programs in the spring of 1997, and Anthony J. Mohammed Dobbins, another black man, as Campus Ministry Coordinator in February 1998. Both McGuinness and Mitchell served on a body known as the Executive Cabinet, which was an executive group consisting of Lincoln Hall's top administrators.

In March 1998, the Lincoln Hall Board of Managers decided to reverse course and undo the reorganization that had been initiated by its Executive Director. The Board discharged the Executive Director, and within two months every member of the Executive Cabinet except one either resigned or was discharged. In particular, three Executive Cabinet members were discharged: a white male named Paul Turnley, who served as the Deputy Director of Development; McGuinness; and Mitchell.

McGuinness was notified on April 27 that Lincoln Hall was eliminating her position. Lincoln Hall informed McGuinness by letter that she was entitled to certain benefits, including a layoff package of two weeks severance allowance (one week for each of McGuinness's two years of service). The letters did not include a request that McGuinness sign a general release of claims against Lincoln Hall.

Mitchell was notified on April 29 that his position also had been eliminated. Lincoln Hall informed Mitchell by letter that Lincoln Hall would agree to pay him twelve weeks of pay in return for his agreement to sign a "waive[r] of any and all claims... arising from [his] employment... including, but not limited to, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws." Mitchell testified in his deposition that Lincoln Hall made the offer of twelve weeks pay simultaneous with informing him of his discharge and before Mitchell had requested or negotiated any such payment.

At approximately the same time, Lincoln Hall discharged Turnley, the white male Deputy Director of Development. Lincoln Hall did not provide a severance package to Turnley. Nor did Lincoln Hall request a general release of claims from him. One and a half months later, on June 15, 1998, Lincoln Hall discharged Dobbins, the black man whom Lincoln Hall had hired as Coordinator of Campus Ministries in February. Lincoln Hall's letter to Dobbins -- like its letter to Mitchell -offered to pay Dobbins a sum of money significantly in excess of the amount provided to McGuinness, in return for a general release of claims. At the time Dobbins was fired he had worked at Lincoln Hall for approximately four months - substantially less than the two years McGuinness had worked at Lincoln Hall at the time of her discharge.

I. Plaintiff's Prima Facie Case

A showing that the employer treated a similarly situated employee differently is "a common and especially effective method" of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, but it "is only one way to discharge that burden." Abdu-Brisson v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 239 F.3d 456, 468 (2d Cir. 2001). Where a plaintiff in a severance pay case seeks to establish her prima facie case in this manner, she may make out a prima facie case of employment discrimination by showing that she is within a protected group; that she is qualified for the position; that she was subject to an adverse employment action involving severance pay; and that a similarly situated employee not in the relevant protected group received better treatment. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973); Fisher v. Vassar College, 114 F.3d 1332, 1335 (2d Cir. 1997) (in banc); see also Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Found., 51 F.3d 14, 19 (2d Cir. 1995). As we have often emphasized, the burden of establishing this prima facie case in employment discrimination cases is "minimal." E.g., St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506 (1993); James v. New York Racing Ass'n, 233 F.3d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 2000); Fisher, 114 F.3d at 1335, 1340 n.7; see also Texas Dept. of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 243, 253 (1981) ("not onerous"). Moreover, because the facts inevitably vary in different employment discrimination cases, both the Supreme Court and this Court have explained that the "prima facie proof required" in a given case will depend on the specific facts in question. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802 n.13.

It is not contested that plaintiff is a white woman and that she was qualified for the position. Furthermore, plaintiff has proffered evidence sufficient to allow a trier of fact to find that defendant offered her a different and less desirable severance package (one which involved less money) than it offered to plaintiff's colleague Carlton Mitchell, a black man who like plaintiff was an executive-level employee, and who was discharged two days after plaintiff. Under the circumstances of this case, this evidence alone satisfied plaintiff's "minimal" burden to establish a prima facie case that she was treated differently on the basis of her race and gender.

In Shumway we ruled where a plaintiff seeks to make out her prima facie case by pointing to the disparate treatment of a purportedly similarly situated employee, the plaintiff must show that she shared sufficient employment characteristics with that comparator so that they could be considered similarly situated. The magistrate judge interpreted Shumway to mean that another employee cannot be similarly situated to a plaintiff unless the other employee had the same supervisor, worked under the same standards, and engaged in the same conduct. This was a misreading of Shumway. In Shumway, we explained that such an employee "must be similarly situated in all material respects" -- not in all respects. 118 F.3d at 64 (emphasis added).2 A plaintiff is not obligated to show disparate...

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