Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 4, 2019, in Woods-Early v. Corning Corp., Case No. 18-CV-6162, a race discrimination class action, Judge Frank P. Geraci, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York refused to strike class allegations of discrimination in promotions on the basis of race and color in violation of Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law. Although Plaintiff’s amended complaint failed to identify a single promotion she was denied on the basis of race and color, the Court found that allegations of discriminatory decision-making by a small group of upper-level management exercising unfettered discretion over an employer’s performance review process was sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss the class claims under Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011).
In 2018 an employee of Corning, a multinational technology company specializing in designing and manufacturing materials for industrial and scientific applications, brought a class action alleging that the employer discriminated against her on the basis of her color and race (Black, African-American) in violation of Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law. Plaintiff asserted that by utilizing a performance evaluation tool and process that disadvantaged Black, African-American employees in obtaining access to promotion opportunities, the employer violated the law. Plaintiff alleged that the Company used an evaluation tool that allowed supervisors, without sufficient training, to exercise unfettered discretion in evaluating employee performance on the basis of ill-defined “Corning Values,” and that these ratings then were advanced to a group of high-level executives called the “brain trust,” who themselves had unfettered discretion to change the ratings.
The discriminatory result alleged by Plaintiff was that African-American employees routinely received lower ratings than their non-minority counterparts, and because of this they were unable to achieve the “Emerging Talent” internal designation and higher salary bands required by Corning to access training and other executive networking opportunities necessary to obtain promotional opportunities. Plaintiff did not, however, identify any single promotional opportunity she was denied.
Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the class allegations as well as any allegations of discrimination against Plaintiff in promotions. Relying on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), the Company argued that discrimination claims based on the exercise of managerial discretion in the performance evaluation process lack sufficient commonality to proceed in litigation. Moreover, Defendant argued that allegations that its executive “brain trust” controlled the performance evaluation process, and had the unfettered discretion to change performance ratings and determine who is designated “Emerging Talent,” were merely “conclusory and implausible.” It further argued that Plaintiff’s claims should fail because she could not link any discriminatory, low performance ratings to an adverse action against her.
The Court’s Ruling
Observing that parties often mistake the import of Wal-Mart as requiring that sustainable class allegations present common questions, the Court opined that the proper inquiry in scrutinizing class allegations is whether the class mechanism is appropriate to find common answers to the allegations. Noting that the Supreme Court in Wal-Mart emphasized that in Title VII claims implicating many employment decisions there must be a “glue” holding the alleged reasons for the decisions together, the Court stated that this “glue” can come in different forms, such as a biased testing procedure or general policy of discrimination manifested in promotions practices.
The Court followed the lead of the Fourth and Seventh Circuits respectively in Scott v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 733 F.3d 105 (4th Cir. 2013), and Chicago Teachers Union, Local No. 1 v. Bd. Of Educ. Of Chicago, 797 F.3d 426 (7th Cit. 2015), each of which found that the commonality required to sustain class treatment is satisfied when discretion is exercised uniformly by higher-level management. As a result, the Court ruled that allegations of the unfettered discretion of the Company’s “brain trust” — to determine employee performance ratings, the incentive of this singular and cohesive group to manipulate performance ratings to impact the individuals designated as “Emerging Talent,” and the effect of the exercise of that discretion to bar African-American employees from advancing to higher pay bands and the access to executives and training needed for promotions — were sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss.
The Court also rejected Defendant’s challenge that although Plaintiff alleged that she suffered discriminatorily low performance ratings, her claim for discrimination in promotions should be dismissed for failing to allege any promotional opportunity for which she applied and was qualified, and that she had been denied. The Court rejected the contention that Plaintiff must allege the adverse action of a specific promotion sought and denied in order to survive a motion to dismiss a claim of discrimination in promotions. Rather, the Court determined that Plaintiff’s allegations of a discriminatory performance evaluation and rating process, and a link between the alleged discriminatory actions of the Company’s “brain trust” and tangible adverse impacts to African-Americans, including herself, was sufficient for her promotions claims to proceed.
Implications For Employers
This decision is one of a growing body of case law authority interpreting and expanding the contours of class actions maintainable in the aftermath of Wal-Mart. Over time, employers may expect the plaintiffs’ class action bar to test and refine theories to obtain class certification in “managerial discretion” cases. To get ahead of this curve, employers should periodically review their performance evaluation processes for disparate impact and other vulnerabilities. Evaluating performance management programs for well-communicated expectations, detailed and sufficiently objective metrics, disciplined scoring, and standardized supervisor training, also is a proactive step for savvy employers to take to enhance the workplace while reducing risk.