Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit allowed a Caucasian construction worker to take his reverse racism claims to trial because there were factual disputes about the reason for his termination.

The plaintiff, Terry Deets, alleges that the defendant contractor laid him off because it was not meeting its federally mandated minority-hiring goals. Prior to his termination, Deets was employed as a construction worker for the defendant construction companies.  Together, the companies formed a joint venture – Massman, Traylor, Alberici (“MTA”) – that won a contract to build a bridge across the Mississippi river.

The contract contained federally mandated goals for participation by minorities and woman. MTA also entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the International Union of Operating Engineers, which required MTA “to increase opportunities for minority groups and women within the unions, and to effect referrals by such unions of minority and female employees.”

After Deets was terminated, he filed an EEOC charge and a lawsuit with the Southern District of Illinois alleging that he was terminated on the basis of his race. The district court, however, concluded that Deets could not establish sufficient evidence of discriminatory intent and granted summary judgment for the defendants on Deets’ Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 claims.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision. Describing several of the district court’s conclusions as “puzzling,” the Seventh Circuit credited Deets’ allegations of direct evidence of discrimination.  In particular, the Seventh Circuit cited Deets’ (disputed) allegation that, when he asked why he was being laid off, the project superintendent told him that “[m]y minority numbers aren’t right. I’m supposed to have 13.9 percent minorities on this job and I’ve only got 8 percent.”  If true, the Seventh Circuit concluded, Deets’ allegation constituted direct evidence that he was laid off because he was not a minority.

The Seventh Circuit also found that Deets offered sufficient circumstantial evidence of racial discrimination to survive summary judgment. Among other “scraps of circumstantial evidence,” the Seventh Circuit pointed to Deets’ allegation that, when he collected his last paycheck, another superintendent stated that he was “sorry to hear about this minority thing.”  The Seventh Circuit also pointed to the fact that a minority was hired to replace Deets only one day after his termination.

A copy of the Seventh Circuit’s decision is available here. The decision demonstrates the care that contractors must take when fulfilling their obligations under federal contracts to provide affirmative action and not to discriminate any employee on the basis of race, gender, or other protected characteristics.