On August 19, 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the court with jurisdiction over appeals from federal cases in Indiana, issued a decision that will likely make it easier for discrimination cases in Indiana to go to trial. In Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., the plaintiff claimed that he was fired because he is Mexican, while the defendant claimed that he was fired for falsifying business records. The plaintiff said that his supervisors subjected him to a barrage of ethnic slurs, calling him such names as “beaner,” “taco,” and “dumb Mexican.” A District Court Judge in Illinois threw out the case on summary judgment, which means that the case was dismissed and would not go to trial. The plaintiff appealed.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and sent the case to trial. The Seventh Circuit found that the District Court had applied certain legal methodology that was too formalistic and that detracted from the real issue: “Whether a reasonable juror could conclude that Ortiz would have kept his job if he had a different ethnicity, and everything else had remained the same.” In other words, if a reasonable juror could find in favor of the plaintiff, the case should go to trial and should not be dismissed by a judge on summary judgment.
In the summary judgment process, our Indiana federal District Courts dismiss the vast majority of employment discrimination cases that are filed before those cases can go before a jury. Sometimes this has occurred because the plaintiff’s evidence cannot be easily pigeon-holed to meet a legal “test,” but if looked at as a whole, could certainly convince a jury that discrimination occurred. Taking a case through an appeal before the Seventh Circuit is expensive and lengthens the already unreasonable times that it takes to litigate, so once dismissed by a District Court, the case is usually over. The new Ortiz decision will make District Courts in Indiana less likely to grant summary judgment in employment discrimination cases, and thus help plaintiffs who have legitimately suffered illegal discrimination get their day in court.