Court Clarifies Similarly-Situated Scope in Retaliation Claim - U.S. Sixth Circuit
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Court Clarifies Similarly-Situated Scope in Retaliation Claim

While the Sixth Circuit is certainly buzzing today with the news of the Supreme Court's unanimous reversal in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there's another employment law case out of the circuit this week that could generate just as much attention.

On Monday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a terminated United Parcel Service (UPS) employee's discrimination and retaliation claims under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), finding that the district court erred in restricting the scope of the employee's discovery to a single, similarly-situated employee and granting summary judgment.

Walleon Bobo's career with UPS ran from 1987 to 2007. In 2004, Bobo, a longstanding member of the Army Reserve and a combat veteran, returned to work at a UPS facility in Memphis after completing rehabilitation for an injury sustained in Iraq. When Bobo subsequently provided his military orders for annual training, his manager told him that he needed to choose between UPS and the Army, a sentiment which was echoed by several UPS employees. While he was allowed to take leave for military training, Bobo's military service remained an issue.

UPS terminated Bobo's employment in 2007 for violation of the company integrity policy. Though Bobo admitted that he had falsified safety review forms in his position, he argued that UPS knew that such falsifications were common within the organization. Bobo claimed that he was actually fired for his commitment to military service.

In reviewing Bobo's claims, the district court limited Bobo's discovery to one similarly-situated employee under the McDonnell-Douglas test. (The single comparator had reported to the same supervisor and had also admitted to falsifying safety reports.) The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that "the district court's framing of the similarly-situated standard was too narrow and necessitated an exact correlation not required by the law."

The court said that Bobo was not required to demonstrate an exact correlation between himself and others similarly situated; rather, he had to show only that he and his proposed comparators were similar in all relevant respects, and that he and his proposed comparators engaged in acts of comparable seriousness. (Bobo, for example, requested discovery on a small number of specific individuals whom he alleged violated the UPS integrity policy by falsifying forms or other acts of dishonesty, and were treated differently.)

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals also decided that there were general issues of material fact regarding Bobo's USERRA claim, and reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment.

What does this decision mean for discrimination and retaliation claims? The similarly-situated standard does not limit a plaintiff's discovery to employees under the same supervisor in identical circumstances; the scope of discovery in such claims just got bigger.

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