Supervisor’s “You People” Remark Supports Race Discrimination Claim

In Battle v. Carroll, the Western District of New York denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s Title VII race discrimination claim.

Plaintiff Ola Battle, a black woman, worked for 17 years as a Holiday Inn housekeeper until she was fired following an expletive-laced confrontation with her supervisor, David Carroll, in which she told him to “fuck off”. Summary judgment was inappropriate, held the court, because Carroll’s use of the phrase “you people” during that exchange suggested a discriminatory motive.

The events giving rise to plaintiff’s lawsuit started when Carroll wrote an email to another employee complaining about plaintiff’s department and plaintiff in particular. Things escalated quickly:

Battle learned of the email, and, although she was not scheduled to work, she came to the hotel the next day and requested a meeting with Carroll to discuss it. The two eventually met in Carroll’s office, where Battle confronted Carroll, disputing the accusations Carroll made in the email. Rosemary Mankowski, an executive assistant at Hart Hotels, overheard at least part of the exchange. She says that it became “heated,” and while the parties generally agree on at least that much, they ultimately arrive at different versions of the exchange. Who said what? Who swore first? These issues remain in some doubt.

There is, however, no dispute that at one point, Carroll told Battle something to effect of “you people are never satisfied.” In her deposition, Battle is more specific, claiming that Carroll told her, “I’m fucking tired about [sic] you people. You [sic] always complaining about something, this or that and this or that.” Battle contends that Carroll was referring to his recent decision to allow Battle’s family to stay in the hotel without charge for 10 days. “Did I not fucking let you and your family stay here?” Carroll allegedly asked Battle. “You people,” she therefore contends, meant black people. But Carroll and Hart Hotels dispute that characterization; they suggest that he was referring to the housekeeping department.

[A]s a result of the meeting, Carroll fired Battle. Battle recalls the following exchange occurring just as she was about to leave Carroll’s office that day:

Carroll: “Ola.”

Battle: “What?”

Carroll: “And you’re fucking fired.”

Battle: “What?”

Carroll: “And you’re fucking fired. Get the fuck off my premises.”

Battle: “Fuck you too.”

(Emphasis added.)

Plaintiff sued under Title VII, which provides that “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race … was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.”

She contended that Carroll’s reference to “you people” indicated discriminatory animus. The court agreed, finding that “the altercation leading to her discharge supports a reasonable inference that race was a motivating factor in her discharge.”

The hotel argued that (1) the reference to “you people” was not a reference to black people, but rather to the housekeeping staff, and (2) the statement was merely a “stray remark” insufficient to support a race discrimination claim. The court rejected both arguments.

As to the first point, the court held that the disputed question of the phrase “you people” could not be resolved on a motion for summary judgment, which concerns issue finding, rather than issue resolution:

[T]he intended meaning of the phrase, which of course can suggest a degree of racial animosity, represents a genuine issue of material fact. The two sides present conflicting evidence tending to support their own interpretation. For her part, Battle reasonably posits that Carroll was referring to black people by noting that Carroll uttered this phrase soon after reminding Battle that he allowed her family to stay in the hotel free of charge. A fact-finder could conclude, then, that Carroll was upset that Battle, a black woman, continued to raise complaints despite his generosity in allowing her family to stay in the hotel for free.

Hart Hotels’ suggestion is also plausible; Carroll may have been innocuously referring to the performance of the housekeeping staff. In fact, there can be no dispute that phrase “you people” is ambiguous and not necessarily indicative of discrimination. Here, the meeting in which Carroll uttered the phrase was precipitated by his email, which called into question the competency of the staff, and there is no dispute that the exchange concerned work-related—not race-related—issues.

But in the end, it is the fact-finder’s prerogative, after weighing all the evidence, to reach its own conclusion on Carroll’s state of mind when he decided to release Battle. As one court, dealing with a similar issue, has correctly observed, “questions of state of mind are best left to a jury,” and references connecting “you people” to an undesirable trait may be construed as a “reflection of discriminatory motivation directed toward the plaintiff.”

As to the defendant’s argument that the comment was a “stray remark”, the court noted that “isolated, stray comments cannot serve to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” It held, however, that Carroll’s “you people” remark “was neither stray nor isolated” since “it was uttered in the course of the very same conversation in which Battle was fired and by the very person who fired her.” Therefore, his “remark is not stray but rather is probative of a discriminatory state of mind.”

The court also rejected the hotel’s alleged non-discriminatory reasons – namely, plaintiff’s “insubordination” – for Carroll’s decision to discharge plaintiff. Its reasons were “contradicted by Carroll himself, and they are thereby exposed as potentially post-hoc, litigation-crafted justifications.” Specifically, Carroll stated in a memorandum that he decided to fire plaintiff only after she told him to “fuck off” twice. The court reasoned:

These competing explanations—even though they are all non-discriminatory—weaken Hart Hotels’ credibility and thus weaken its contention that race was not a motivating factor in her release. In other words, the shifting explanations suggest, to a level sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact, that they may be pre-textual. Indeed, the Second Circuit has found that shifting justifications may be a sufficient basis on which a fact-finder could conclude that the proffered non-discriminatory reasons were simply pretext for discrimination. …

Further, this Court, on summary judgment, cannot simply credit Carroll’s contemporaneous explanation that he fired Battle because she swore at him. Although that would be a perfectly legitimate reason to fire her, Battle disputes that account of the interaction, maintaining that she cursed only after Carroll fired her.

Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s deposition testimony that she “would probably still have [her] job if [she] had not walked through [Carroll’s office] door” amounted to an acknowledgement by plaintiff that her insubordination, rather than her race, led to her termination. It reasoned:

[T]hat interpretation assumes too much. It is at least equally possible that this statement reflects a recognition that Carroll would not have had occasion to express and act on any racially-motivated animus had she not confronted him about the email. Walking through Carroll’s door is simply a distal—not a proximal—cause of her discharge. She also might not have lost her job if Carroll did not send the email the previous day, or if Battle had not seen it. But none of that necessarily means that race could not have played any meaningful role in her termination. Like a car-accident victim wistfully thinking “if only I took the train,” this statement proves little, if anything, about fault.

This case should certainly not be read as a license to tell your boss to “fuck off”. If anything, it illustrates the fact-intensive nature of employment discrimination cases, and should serve as a warning to managers to avoid any language that could be construed as racially derogatory.

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