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Published: 2012-08-23

Occasional Racial Remarks During A 14-Year Period Of Employment Are Insufficient To Create A Fact Issue As To Whether Or Not Termination Of An Employee Was Racially Motivated And/Or Discriminatory



The Supreme Court found in a per curium decision that four racial or derogatory remarks made over a 14-year period were insufficient to raise a fact issue regarding whether or not an employee=s termination was based upon a discriminatory purpose and, therefore, summary judgment was proper against the Plaintiff. M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, The University of Texas System Cancer Center vs. Harold Gene Willrich, 43 S.Ct.J. 1175.

FACTS OF CASE

Harold Gene Willrich was a utility station operator for the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (UTMDA) from June 1981 until August 1995. In 1982, Mr. Willrich was selected against his wishes to replace a retiring maintenance worker for the night shift. He had the highest job classification and was the only African-American eligible for the night shift job. Through the years, Mr. Willrich filed several complaints to management about racial incidents. In June of 1995, UTMDA downsized and instituted a reduction in force policy. UTMDA eliminated existing positions and created new positions within their new organization. UTMDA basically contacted all employees and asked them to express their preferences for three positions. Mr. Willrich requested only a night shift job - which were the least available positions. UTMDA did not select Mr. Willrich for a job in the organization and terminated him in August of 1995 along with 34 other employees of various races.

Mr. Willrich sued UTMDA alleging that his termination was racially discriminatory. UTMDA moved for summary judgment stating among other things that Mr. Willrich was terminated because his position had been eliminated due to the reorganization, he was not the most qualified candidate for jobs he specified on his preference form, and he requested only night shift positions. Mr. Willrich did not respond to the summary judgment. At the time of the hearing, he requested a continuance which was denied. The trial court granted the summary judgment which was later overturned by the Court of Appeals citing that there were some fact issues about the reasons Mr. Willrich was terminated. UTMDA appealed the ruling of the appellate court to the Texas Supreme Court.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT EVIDENCE

The Texas Supreme Court outlined the basis of review for summary judgments and, basically, reiterated long-standing case law. Further, the court noted that despite the fact that Mr. Willrich did not respond to the Motion for Summary Judgment, he could rely upon the evidence attached to UTMDA's Motion for Summary Judgment in order to prevent the granting of the Motion for Summary Judgment. However, the Texas Supreme Court found that the evidence Mr. Willrich relied upon did not raise a fact issue as to whether or not the reasons cited by UTMDA for his termination were pre-textual and, therefore, whether his termination was based upon racial discrimination.

In particular, Mr. Willrich pointed to his deposition testimony which was part of UTMDA's Motion for Summary Judgment where he outlined that there were at least four occasions in which racial and/or derogatory remarks were made to him during his 14 years at UTMDA. The court noted that stray remarks, remote in time from Willrich's termination and not made by anyone directly connected with the reduction in force decisions, are not enough to raise a fact question about whether UTMDA's reason for terminating Willrich was pre-textual. The court concluded that the evidence submitted by UTMDA was sufficient for the granting of the summary judgment. Furthermore, Mr. Willrich had stated that it was his belief that he was terminated based upon his race. The court countered that subjective beliefs are insufficient to overcome summary judgment evidence. The court overturned the Court of Appeals judgment and rendered judgment in favor of UTMDA without oral argument.

ANALYSIS OF OPINION

The court established that in Motions for Summary Judgment a party can rely upon evidence attached to the movant's Motion for Summary Judgment in order to combat or prevent the granting of the summary judgment. Furthermore, the court concluded that stray remarks, derogatory in nature, made over a long period of time were not enough to show that any action taken by a company is discriminatory and/or the basis of a wrongful discriminatory termination case.

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