Decision will have ‘tremendous impact in the workplace," according to Professor Robert Belton
Kara Shea, ’96, a partner with Miller & Martin, is one of a team of two attorneys who will take a case to the Supreme Court in April. Shea and colleague Todd Presnell, who will argue the case, are representing Los Angeles-headquartered BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company in a case concerning BCI’s termination of an African-American employee of BCI’s plant in Albuquerque, N.M. According to BCI, Stephen Peters was fired for insubordination after he refused his supervisor’s request to work on a scheduled day off.
According to employment law expert Robert Belton, the case has potential to greatly affect the way companies enforce anti-discrimination policies. “It’s a very, very important case,” Professor Belton said. “It’s going to be a major decision with tremendous impact in the workplace.”
A human resources manager based in a BCI management office in Arizona carried out the termination, and BMI maintains the manager had no knowledge of Peters’ race when the decision was made. But evidence presented by the EEOC suggests that Peters’ direct supervisor had racial biases, which could have motivated the termination decision. The question before the Supreme Court is whether, under federal discrimination laws, BCI can be held liable for the alleged racism of Peters’ immediate supervisor, even though the Arizona-based human resources manager had the ultimate decision-making authority to terminate Peters.
The issue of subordinate bias liability is particularly significant for all employers utilizing multi-level management and centralized decision-making by human resources personnel, according to Shea. “Human resources personnel frequently rely on information provided by supervisors in the field, and we are hopeful the court will recognize the practical aspects of imposing liability where an employer has made an effort to ensure neutrality and consistency in decision-making by centralizing the process,” Shea said.
Initially, the trial court dismissed the case, but the decision was reversed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear the appeal. Oral argument will likely take place in April, and the EEOC will be represented by U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement or one of his deputies.
Another Vanderbilt Law graduate, Miller & Martin partner David Johnson, ’97, is assisting the team with briefing and argument preparation.
Shea joined the Nashville office of Trabue, Sturdivant & DeWitt, which later merged with Miller & Martin, after graduating from Vanderbilt Law School in 1996. She focuses on employment and intellectual property law.
Condensed from “Local attorneys to work Supreme Court race case,” by Amy Griffith, Nashville Post, January 11, 2007.