On May 13, 2020, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision, paving the way to a jury trial for an African American man who alleges Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) engaged in employment discrimination and fired him because of his race. Sommers Schwartz attorneys Daniel Swanson, Tad Roumayah, and Ramona Howard represent the plaintiff in a wrongful termination lawsuit brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Unfair Treatment After Suspicions of Corruption
The plaintiff, Kenya Spratt, worked as a senior construction buyer at FCA, where he was responsible for soliciting competitive bids for large construction projects. Before entering the private sector, he served honorably in the Marine Corps and National Guard, including a posting to Camp David as part of President Carter’s protection detail.
In 2016, FCA launched a plan to renovate the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and the plaintiff oversaw the bidding process related to the project. Based on his experience in a previous construction project with the FCA facilities group, Spratt legitimately believed that someone in the facilities group was sharing inside information with Barton Malow, one of the bidding contractors. Because of his suspicions, Spratt “massaged” some of the numbers in an interim bid summary sheet that was only used to clarify the contractors’ initial bids. Contrary to established policy, the FCA facilities group obtained Barton Malow’s and another bidder’s initial bids. Subsequently, Spratt accurately summarized the contractors’ final bids, and that summary was used to determine which contractor would be awarded the project.
As a result of Roncelli submitting the lowest final bid, the plaintiff recommended that FCA award it the contract. Despite Spratt’s recommendation and FCA’s practice of awarding construction contracts to the lowest bidder, the facilities group demanded that the bid be awarded to Barton Malow. The facilities group prevailed in awarding the contract to Barton Malow despite its failure to document its justification for not awarding the contract to the lowest bidder.
Investigation, Termination, and Litigation
The facilities group manager assigned to the museum project discovered the alteration to the initial bid summary only because he impermissibly obtained two of the contractors’ initial bids. This discovery prompted an investigation into the plaintiff’s conduct by FCA’s Business Practices Office in February 2017. Spratt admitted to altering the numbers in the initial summary sheet and maintained it was to safeguard the integrity of the bidding process.
Nevertheless, FCA terminated the plaintiff, after which he brought a wrongful termination action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. He alleged FCA violated Title VII because the company’s explanation for his firing over the altered bid process was a pretext for race discrimination.
Central to the plaintiff’s case was FCA’s investigation of his white male predecessor for breaching various corporate policies, including:
- Receiving kickbacks from a supplier in exchange for awarding contracts.
- Forwarding confidential information to suppliers.
- Selling his personally owned vehicles to suppliers at inflated prices to disguise kickbacks from suppliers.
- Failing to comply with the defendant’s established document management procedures.
A recorded conversation of the predecessor revealed his acknowledgment of improper relationships and activities. Following the investigation, FCA removed the predecessor from his senior buyer position, but instead of terminating him, the company transferred him to a higher-paying job in another department.
The plaintiff argued to the court that had he been Caucasian – like his “comparator” predecessor – FCA would not have terminated his employment. Finding that the comparator was not similarly situated enough to permit the plaintiff to demonstrate differential treatment to a jury, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of FCA US, and the plaintiff appealed to the 6th Circuit.
Reversal by the 6th Circuit Panel
A three-judge appellate panel disagreed with the lower court’s ruling, reversing its decision and remanding the case so it could proceed to trial. Although this is a procedural win for the plaintiff, it was not a foregone conclusion.
The panel included one judge appointed by President Clinton, another appointed by President Carter, and a third judge appointed by President Trump. In an unpredictable turn, the decision to reverse and remand was unanimous, an apparent show of support for the plaintiff and the mistreatment he endured.