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Federal Court reverses lower court; reinstates race discrimination claim

Anthony Rachells, a black man, was a Retail Account Executive for Cingular Wireless after SBC Communications acquired Ameritech and then merged with Bellsouth Corporation.  The regional office decided to reduce the combined sales force from nine to four employees and dismissed Rachells, despite the fact that he had received numerous sales awards, consistently exceeded company sales goals by the greatest margin of any of his co-workers, and in the previous year earned the top performance review among the Cingular sales staff. 

Immediately after the merger, as the company decided to combine sales employees, this award-winning and successful employee was given the lowest performance score of any candidate--resulting in a ranking of 7 out of the 9 persons considered for continued employment.  Prior to that review, his employment reviews had been consistently superlative.  He had received nine total sales awards, enjoyed the highest sales attainment percentages in the country, was awarded the "Crown of Excellence" in the year prior, and enjoyed the highest performance evaluation score among his peers.

Rachells argued that his exceptionally low evaluation and subsequent dismissal were the product of racial animus on the part of his newest supervisor.  He provided documentation of other apparent evidence of racial discrimination, including the serial elimination of minority Direct Channel store managers, and the promotion of a Caucasian store manager with a poor sales record over the application of two minority candidates with better sales records.

The District Court had compared Rachells with all nine competing candidates and concluded that he could not document discrimination.  The Sixth Circuit pointed out that the lower court had misapplied existing law because it treated as "comparable candidates" employees who had not been subjected to the same testing and qualifying decision-making process as Rachells.  When the proper candidates were compared, the higher court held that Rachells had documented a prima facie case of discrimination by the employer.

Given that Rachells was the only person of color, and the only individual discharged in the RIF [reduction in force], and that he had presented evidence of other alleged discrimination to corroborate his evidence of superior qualifications, the Court concluded that his allegations should be heard by a jury.  If Rachells presents adequate evidence of discrimination, it will be up to the employer to prove that Rachell's "marked decline" in performance from 2003 to 2004 was genuine and not a pretext to support a discriminatory discharge.The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

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