By Samantha L. Brooks and Eric J. Janson

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Lyons v. City of Alexandria, No. 20-1656, 2022 WL 1739987 (4th Cir. June 1, 2022), the Court issued an employer-friendly decision under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., (“Title VII”), reiterating that employers should not be punished “for implementing lawful and nondiscriminatory business practices.”  The Court affirmed summary judgment for the City where Plaintiff presented no evidence of race discrimination and only alleged that he misunderstood his employer’s policy.

In 2016, while employed by the Alexandria Fire Department (“AFD”) as a firefighter, Plaintiff began the process of becoming a paramedic.  With AFD’s help and support, Plaintiff satisfied the various educational requirements (including on-the-job training in an AFD medic unit) and, in August 2017, eventually passed the required written examinations on his sixth attempt.  Once he passed the written examinations, he became eligible for the required one-year Advanced Life Support Internship Program at the AFD, after which point he would become a paramedic.  However, he was not promoted to the internship until five months after he passed the written examinations.  During that time, Plaintiff did not receive the increased pay or rank that came with being a paramedic intern.

During the five month delay, Plaintiff claimed that the AFD’s Emergency Medical Services Training Officer and Deputy Chief of Emergency Medical Services told him that firefighters were typically placed in the internship program on a “first come, first served” basis after becoming eligible.  However, when Plaintiff saw three other white colleagues on different AFD shifts promoted to the internship before him, he believed AFD was delaying his promotion because of his race (Black) and that it was violating its own placement practices.  AFD, however, explained that the “first come, first served” practice was shift specific.  For example, the AFD had three shifts, and an applicant on one particular shift would not be placed into the internship until a spot on their particular shift became available.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the City of Alexandria, and found that Plaintiff had failed to create a genuine issue of material fact that the AFD did not have a shift-specific, first come, first served internship placement practice.

Without direct evidence of discrimination, the Fourth Circuit engaged in the familiar McDonnell Douglas Corp. burden-shifting analysis.  The Court found that although Plaintiff could establish the first three elements of a prima facie case of race discrimination, i.e., that he was a member of a protected class, that he applied for the internship, and that he was qualified for the internship, he did not establish that the delay in his placement in the internship gave rise to an inference of unlawful race discrimination.

Specifically, the Court held that the AFD put forward record evidence that its general practice was to place interns on a first come, first served basis based on their shift, and that the three white firefighters who were assigned the internship ahead of Plaintiff were so assigned in accordance with this general practice.  In contrast, Plaintiff’s only evidence was based on his “understanding” that the policy was first come, first served, without regard to shift.  The Court held, however, that Plaintiff’s understanding of the policy as told to him by AFD’s Emergency Medical Services Training Officer and Deputy Chief of Emergency Medical Services is not sufficient to raise a dispute of material fact in light of the evidence presented by the AFD.  Indeed, the AFD’s evidence confirmed the first come, first served by shift practice had been historically followed and that Plaintiff received the first available internship on his shift consistent with that practice

Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment and similarly held that Plaintiff’s misunderstanding of the AFD’s internship placement practice did not suffice to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact.  The Court also reiterated that in the absence of evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact, it “must ensure that employers are not punished for implementing lawful and nondiscriminatory business practices.”

So what does Lyons mean for employers?  It is of critical importance that employers have a comprehensive employee handbook (or, at minimum, a strong set of employment policies) notifying employees of the terms and conditions of their employment, including certain rights, benefits and/or privileges established by state and federal law.  While these employment policies may not cover every possible workplace scenario, the Fourth Circuit Lyons decision provides reassurance that employers will not be penalized for any ambiguities in their policies if they can demonstrate that practices are consistently and historically followed without regard to an employee’s race or other protected category.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Counseling & Solutions Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.