One of the key analyses in any discrimination lawsuit is whether the plaintiff is “similarly situated” to those whom he or she claims the employer treated more favorably. If the plaintiff can establish disparate treatment of those “similarly situated,” he or she can make out a prima facie case and proceed to the bonus round, proving that the employer’s legitimate non-discriminatory reason was a pretext for discrimination. Conversely, a failure to prove “similarly situated” dooms a claim to the summary judgment scrapheap. Similarly situated, though, lies in the eyes of the beholder. How a court frames who is, and who is not, “similarly situated” often is dispositive of the issue of discrimination.
Consider, for example, Diaz v. Kraft Foods (7th Cir. 8/8/11). The trial court concluded that the plaintiff could not prove discrimination because of his race (Hispanic) because the employer ultimately filled the challenged position with another Hispanic. The appellate court, however, disagreed:
Title VII would have little force if an employer could defeat a claim of discrimination by treating a single member of the protected class in accordance with the law. Suppose the district court’s view carried the day: a female employee suffering from discrimination on the basis of her sex would have to establish that her employer discriminated against all women in the workplace to assert a sex discrimination claim. That, sensibly, is not how Title VII operates.…
[T]he employer cannot satisfy its burden by identifying a person within the protected class who was not similarly discriminated against.
What does this mean from a practical standpoint? If you are terminating, or taking another adverse action against, an employee, you need to analyze whether you’ve treated others outside the protected class better. If you merely analyze whether you’ve treat others inside the same protected class better, you risk a court concluding that your analysis is irrelevant. It’s an apples-to-oranges analysis, not an apples-to-apples analysis.