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Fired engineering worker gets race, wage bias case reinstated

Posted On: Oct. 14, 2015 12:00 AM CST

A federal appeals court has reinstated a race discrimination charge filed by a former engineering firm employee who was allegedly hired at a lower salary than a similarly-qualified white worker, then became the first employee involuntarily terminated in a reduction in force after he complained.

Melvin Smith was hired as an instructor/trainer as part of a project where URS Corp., which is now a unit of Los Angeles-based Aecom Technology Corp., was hired by the U.S. Army to destroy munitions at a facility in Arkansas, according to Wednesday’s ruling by the 8th U.S. circuit Court of appeals in St. Louis in Melvin Smith v. URS Corp.

Although Mr. Smith sought a position of training specialist at a salary of $46,000, he was hired with a salary of $57,668 per year. Five months later, URS hired a white applicant, Jesse Griffin, who had also applied for a position of training specialist, at a salary of $65,000 a year and gave him the title of senior training specialist.

Two months later it hired another black male applicant, Stanley Ellis, as a training specialist at salary of $57,668. Four other trainers, three of whom were white and one of whom was Hispanic, were subsequently hired as senior training specialists at a higher wage than Mr. Smith or Mr. Ellis, according to the ruling.

Mr. Smith learned of the salary disparity and complained to training manager Ted Howard. Mr. Howard later conducted a subjective ranking of the trainers, and placed Mr. Smith and Mr. Ellis first in line to be terminated in a reduction in force although, unlike the two men, Mr. Griffith and another trainer who were ranked higher had disciplinary reports on their personnel files. Mr. Smith was subsequently the first trainer to be involuntarily terminated in a reduction in force.

Mr. Smith filed suit, charging race discrimination and retaliation. The U.S. District Court in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, granted URS summary judgment dismissing the case, stating Mr. Smith had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

The appeals court reinstated the case in a 2-1 ruling. Between Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Ellis’ hiring, “a white man without meaningfully different qualifications applied for a position in the same department to perform the same work and received a higher-ranking and higher-paying position than the black men (a position for which he had applied),” said the majority opinion, in reversing dismissal of the racial discrimination charge. The court also said the lower court, which did not discuss the retaliation claim, should address that issue.

The dissenting opinion said because Mr. Smith was hired at a salary that was $10,000 per year more than he requested, he had not suffered an adverse employment action in the hiring process.

In June, an appeals court reinstated a retaliation lawsuit filed by a District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority worker who said he was terminated in retaliation for complaining about racial discrimination.