People get ahead in the business world for many reasons. Family relationships, college buddies, personal friendships and the like can serve as the basis for claims of unfair treatment by a coworker who believes he or she was placed at a disadvantage due to such favoritism. However, as made clear in a new Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, favoritism does not necessarily mean discrimination based upon a protected classification. In Swackhammer v. Sprint, the plaintiff was a terminated Sprint Vice President who lost her job following an investigation of improper gifts received from vendors. She sued alleging sex discrimination under Title VII. In her claim, the plaintiff alleged that a male Vice President had engaged in similar conduct, but was not terminated.
The Tenth Circuit rejected the plaintiff's claim, and affirmed summary judgment for Sprint. In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that her supervisor and the male Vice President who was not terminated were college fraternity brothers and close friends. The court found legitimate differences in the alleged conduct of both Vice Presidents that justified Sprint's different conclusions regarding their treatment. In addition, the Tenth Circuit held that the plaintiff's claims of favoritism are not the same as claims of sex discrimination. Even if the male Vice President was treated less harshly due to his personal relationship with his supervisor, this does not demonstrate that the decisions were motivated by the gender of the respective employees. Many employees complain that they have been discriminated against in the workplace. However, Title VII only addresses discrimination which the plaintiff can demonstrate is motivated by the specific protected classification.