In a rare victory for the worker, the Fifth Circuit reversed summary judgment for the employer. In Schirle v. Sokudo USA, Inc., No. 11-10788 (5th Cir. 7/31/12), the plaintiff alleged he was discriminated against because he was non-Japanese. Sokudo and the other defendants are Japanese owned corporations. Mr. Schirle also claimed that he suffered an adverse personnel action after he complained about the discrimination. Mr. Schirle said he lost valuable sales territory after his complaint. The employer argued that diminished responsibility was not an adverse personnel action under Title VII. The Fifth Circuit correctly rejected that argument.
Significant reduction of "material responsibilities" or a demotion constitute adverse personnel actions, said the court. Mr. Schirle lost responsibility for European sales. He retained responsibility for the USA, but lost significant authority. The court found this loss of authority sufficient to create a fact issue regarding the existence of an adverse personnel action. The court noted that the employer admitted in response to a Request for Admissions that the European sales responsibility was moved to a Japanese manager. So, yes, he was replaced by a Japanese manager in charge of of European sales. See the decision here.
I find it remarkable that given these facts, the district court granted summary judgment in the first place. Too many judges use summary judgment to determine facts. But, summary (or "quick") judgment is supposed to only apply to cases that lack any real hope of success at trial. Summary judgment should apply only when there is no genuine issue regarding key facts.
Instead, a tool to screen out weak cases has become a vehicle for judges to decide cases better decided by juries. Juries should draw factual conclusions, not judges. Credit goes to the Fifth Circuit for recognizing the true meaning of summary judgment in this case. If there are factual issues of real import, then that is a case that is better decided by a jury of our peers, not by someone who has never had to worry about his next paycheck.