March 08, 2013
Fired Vietnamese worker cites supervisor’s bias

A terminated worker said her supervisor’s comments about her gender and national origin show that the company discriminated against her.

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What happened. “Kim,” a Vietnamese woman who worked for Qualcomm, Inc., alleged that her male supervisor made discriminatory comments to her—for example, saying he hired her because she is Vietnamese and that he would not have to pay her as much as an “American” worker.

When she complained that other workers were mistreating her, she said her supervisor allegedly replied, “You are a woman Vietnamese, you have to listen to me. Don’t complain [about] anything, just come to work and finish your project.”

After her employment was terminated, Kim filed suit. The district court concluded that she did not exhaust her administrative remedies. It granted summary judgment to Qualcomm on her discrimination and harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and her state tort assault and battery claims and denied her motion to reopen discovery under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d).

Kim appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

What the court said. The appeals court concluded that Kim did, in fact, exhaust administrative remedies and timely file her suit.

Saying there was direct evidence of discriminatory animus, the court reversed the decision on the employment discrimination claim. Citing another 9th Circuit case, the court said it has “repeatedly held that a single discriminatory comment by a plaintiff’s supervisor or decision maker is sufficient to preclude summary judgment for the employer.” In this case, the supervisor’s comments to Kim created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether her gender and national origin were motivating factors in her termination, according to the court.

Citing another case, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision on the harassment claim, saying Kim did not establish that her “workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of … employment and create an abusive working environment.”

It also affirmed on the assault and battery claims, saying they are preempted by California’s workers’ compensation law and held that Kim’s motion to reopen discovery is moot. Nguyen v. Qualcomm, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Cir., No. 11-55580 (12/24/12).

Point to remember: During training, make sure supervisors and managers understand that even a single discriminatory comment to a subordinate could create legal trouble for the company.

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