Many employees misunderstand the scope of federal civil rights laws. Title VII does not prohibit employers from discrimination in employment decisions. It only prohibits discrimination based upon a protected classification, i.e., race, sex, religion, etc. A decision last week from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina) demonstrates how claims of unfairness not tied to a protected classification can undermine a plaintiff’s discrimination case.
In Lightner v. City of Wilmington, a police officer who received a disciplinary suspension filed suit under Title VII, alleging race and gender discrimination. However, in his deposition, the plaintiff also claimed that the real reason for his suspension was that the police department was attempting to cover up departmental wrongdoing. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit seized on these claims to affirm dismissal of the suit.
By offering his belief that his employer conspired to cover-up wrongdoing to avoid embarrassment to the department, the plaintiff defeated his Title VII claims. Title VII only applies to claims of discrimination based on enumerated criteria. It cannot be used to sue an employer for alleged general unfairness in employment decisions. Employers investigating employee claims of discrimination should be careful to determine whether such claims relate to a protected classification, or are really allegations of general unfairness. Legally, employers have significant latitude to make and defend employment decisions that an employee generally views as unfair or unjustified.