glass_ceiling.jpgBy Laura Maechtlen and Brian Wong

It is not uncommon for an employer to face vague or overbroad class claims premised on one employee’s injury limited to a specific set of facts. However, in a recent ruling in Singleton v. BP Amoco Chemical Co., No. CVV-12-J-255-5 (N.D. Ala. April 3, 2012), an Alabama federal district court judge limited an individual plaintiff’s attempt to bring Title VII class claims on behalf of a large group of women, finding that the plaintiff lacked standing to represent the group of female employees she sought to include in the putative class. This decision provides an interesting roadmap for employers seeking to challenge a plaintiff’s standing under Title VII.  

Key Facts In The Case

In Singleton, the named plaintiff Debbie Singleton brought suit on behalf of herself and a purported group of similarly situated women, alleging gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. § 1981a. Singleton had previously worked for BP from 2000 through 2009, and returned to BP as a contract employee in September 2010. In November 2010, Singleton applied for a permanent position, which required her to pass a “WorkKeys” test. Singleton repeatedly failed the test and was not rehired as a permanent employee. After Singleton filed an EEOC charge, however, the employer dispensed with the WorkKeys test in favor of a different applicant process. By the time she filed her complaint, Singleton had taken and passed the new test, and was awaiting an interview for a permanent position.

Nevertheless, in filing suit, Singleton sought to represent a class of all women and applicants affected by the employer’s alleged discriminatory hiring policies and procedures, including prior use of the WorkKeys test to intentionally exclude females from employment. The claim asserted on behalf of the class is that the employer engaged in a general pattern or practice of discrimination against all women employees and applicants in all aspects of employment.

In response, the employer moved to dismiss Singleton’s claims on multiple grounds, arguing that Singleton lacked standing to sue on behalf of purported class members because the plaintiff’s only injury stemmed from the failure to pass one section of the WorkKeys test. Plaintiff argued that her injury in fact was the failure to be hired, which resulted in her failure to pass the test.

The Court’s Analysis Of The Standing Defense

The Court agreed with the employer and recognized that a plaintiff necessarily is limited to the issues as to which the employee is aggrieved, and as such, Singleton lacked standing to assert claims on behalf of a class for purported injuries she did not herself suffer. 

The Court based its holding on the rule that “a claim cannot be asserted on behalf of a class unless at least one named plaintiff has suffered the injury that gives rise to the claim.” Id. at  6. In the context of Title VII, the Court noted “[t]he mere fact that an aggrieved private plaintiff is a member of an identifiable class of persons of the same race or national origin is insufficient to establish his standing to litigate on their behalf all possible claims of discrimination against a common employer.” Id. It further recognized that, if the testing procedures are the basis for the disparity in women hired, as the plaintiff alleged, then only women who were not hired because of the testing procedures could possibly allege an injury from those procedures.

In the end, because Singleton herself was not discouraged from applying for a job with BP, nor barred from positions with defendant, applied for jobs with defendant, and was hired by defendant, more than once, she lacked “standing to assert claims on behalf of females discouraged from applying with [BP], regardless of the reasons for non-application.” Id. at 10. Similarly, the Court held Singleton lacked standing to assert claims on behalf of women allegedly injured before she applied for a permanent position in November 2010 or after the date the employer eliminated the WorkKeys test, or women who were not hired for reasons other than the WorkKeys test. Plaintiff did, however, have standing to represent those females who did not pass the Work Keys test post-2009. Id. at 13.

In addition to “necessarily limit[ing]” the scope of Singleton’s class claims, the Court also dismissed her request for injunctive relief, and denied BP’s motion to dismiss her § 1981a claim. Id.  

Lessons To Be Drawn From The Ruling

This case serves as a reminder to employers that aggressive challenges to a named plaintiff’s standing can be an effective method of narrowing the scope of an improperly broad class discrimination claim. This defense can be asserted up front through a Rule 12 pleading.