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High court to review subordinate bias case


WASHINGTON--The Supreme Court will review whether an employer can be held liable for a subordinate manager's alleged racial bias in providing--or not providing--information that led to an employee's termination.

The high court agreed Friday to hear arguments in BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Los Angeles vs. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC brought suit on behalf of Stephen Peters, an African-American employee at BCI's Albuquerque, N.M., facility. Mr. Peters was fired in October 2001 after he refused to work overtime while ill. His immediate supervisor, who had allegedly made racially disparaging remarks, sought advice on how to handle the situation from a human resources manager who worked in Phoenix and who had never met Mr. Peters and who did not, in fact, know his race.

Mr. Peters filed a discrimination complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although a federal district court dismissed the case on a summary judgment ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Curt of Appeals in Denver reinstated the suit last June. The court noted that the human resources manager had relied solely on Mr. Peters' supervisor's account of what had happened, without even checking basic information with Mr. Peters himself. The court noted the supervisor's alleged pattern of racial bias and the fact that he had failed to discipline a Hispanic employee who had refused to work on her day off.

In making the decision to terminate Mr. Peters, "the human resources official relied exclusively on information provided by Mr. Peters' immediate supervisor, who not only knew Mr. Peters' race but allegedly had a history of treating black employees unfavorably and making disparaging racial remarks in the workplace," held the appeals court.

The court also wrote: "Recognition of subordinate bias claims forecloses a strategic option for employers who might seek to evade liability, even in the face of rampant race discrimination among subordinates, through willful blindness as to the source of reports and recommendations."