The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently denied class certification to a group of bus drivers who claimed they faced stiffer penalties because of their race, finding that the group did not have enough in common to certify them as a class.
The employees were former school bus drivers for a bussing company. The employees alleged that the employer’s disciplinary practices were racially discriminatory because black drivers generally were disciplined at a higher rate than white drivers in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Illinois law. Several black drivers filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the black bus drivers had been unlawfully discriminated against.
District Court’s Decision
In order to bring a class action, the group bringing the lawsuit must show a number of critical issues, one of which is that there is an issue of law or fact common to all members of the proposed class. The drivers in this lawsuit requested that the court certify the group as a class, which therefore required the drivers to show that there was a common issue or practice by the employer against all members of the class.
In the drivers’ attempt to show discrimination that was common to all members of the class, the drivers relied on one supervisor who participated in disciplining all potential class members and who the drivers alleged discriminated against all class members. The drivers also offered discipline statistics that they alleged showed that white drivers were suspended .75 times per driver, whereas black drivers were suspended 1.15 times per driver. The employer opposed the drivers’ analysis, stating that all potential class members were disciplined for violating different employment policies in different ways.
The court relied on existing case law to hold that there were not issues common to all class members. Although the court agreed that a discriminatory bias on the part of one supervisor may be sufficient to establish commonality, the court explained that under existing precedent, such an assertion must still be capable of class-wide resolution. Because the supervisor’s level of involvement and discretion in making disciplinary decision¾and the level of involvement and input of other supervisors¾varied substantially based on the particular company policy at issue, the court concluded that the drivers could not establish the supervisor’s discriminatory bias on a class-wide basis. Instead, the court found that a jury would have to consider different sets of facts to determine whether the supervisor discriminated against a particular driver in a particular context.
The court also rejected the drivers’ attempt to rely on allegations of a “pattern or practice” of discrimination to justify class certification. Because the drivers only presented statistics showing disparities in the overall numbers of suspensions, and not testimony capturing specific instances of intentional discrimination, the court reasoned that the drivers could not rely on their “pattern or practice” analysis to reach a finding of common issue.
The court’s decision is a reminder for employers that giving multiple supervisors discretionary disciplinary authority over the employees they supervise may prove to be beneficial for the employer as a matter of company policy. In addition, such a practice may also be beneficial in increasing chances of defeating class certification on issues of discrimination. Nevertheless, it is important to have clear and uniform disciplinary policies in place. These policies should be neutrally and reasonably enforced based on the specific circumstances and conduct involved. Employers should review all of their policies, including disciplinary policies, on a routine basis to help ensure that they are effective and neutral. If not, revisions should promptly follow the review. Employers should consult with knowledgeable individuals or experienced employment counsel if they have any serious or difficult questions concerning existing policies.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at email@example.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.