Toward a Motivating Factor Test for Individual Disparate Treatment Claims

Nathan Fields, an African-American employee at the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (“OMRDD”), was in many ways the typical Title VIP employment discrimination plaintiff, with a case that, on its face, suggested both discriminatory and benign actions by his employer. For six years, Fields worked as a maintenance assistant in the electrical shop at OMRDD’s Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center (“Heck”). During that time, he twice applied for a promotion, and on each occasion, Heck selected white employees for the position. In addition, Fields claimed that he was discriminatorily singled out for disciplinary treatment, that he was assigned to a disfavored work shift, and that he received fewer opportunities for overtime work than his white coworkers. Fields offered statistical evidence indicating that Heck disproportionately assigned the tedious and difficult “ballast” work to the minority employees of the electrical shop. Fields’s statistics also revealed that Heck did not randomly assign job pairings in the electrical shop; rather, Heck tended to assign minorities to work with other minorities, while disparately matching white workers with other whites. Finally, Fields testified that on two or three occasions he heard white employees make racial jokes or slurs about minority co-workers. As is the case in many employment discrimination “disparate treatment” claims, however, other facts – including Fields’s spotty employment record and Heck’s ability to articulate legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for many of its actions – complicated the plaintiff’s claims. Fields himself acknowledged, for example, that he was poorly qualified for the promotions, and that he had accumulated negative time, attendance, and performance records while at Heck. In addition, Heck demonstrated that it assigned the tasks protested by Fields largely on the basis of the different levels of experience and expertise of each of its workers – not on the basis of the employees’ races. The jury agreed with the defendant’s explanation, returning a verdict in favor of Heck on all of Fields’s claims, and the Second Circuit affirmed the jury’s verdict on appeal.