People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Reverses Lower Court and Gives Fired Employee her Day in Court to Prove Sex Discrimination

Biden Judge Reverses Lower Court and Gives Fired Employee her Day in Court to Prove Sex Discrimination

Judge Beth Robinson, nominated by President Biden to the Second Circuit court of appeals, wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed a lower court ruling against a woman who brought claims of sex-based discrimination and hostile work environment against a major corporation. Robinson’s ruling sent the case back to the lower court so the woman will have her day in court to prove her claims to a jury. The March 2024 decision was in King v Aramark Services Inc.


What is the background of this case?

Kristen King worked for Aramark Services Inc., a corporation that provides food and other services to hospitals and other health care facilities, until she was fired in 2017. She had worked her way up to a management position responsible for “as much as $23 million” in total managed volume.

According to her complaint, she began to experience a “steady course of mistreatment” once Griffith Thomas became her supervisor in 2015. In particular, evidence established a number of actions against King that reflected different and more harsh treatment than her male co-workers received.

  • Thomas denied King a merit- based salary increase because she “inconsistently” met expectations. This was despite the fact that objective evidence showed she met “93.9% of her corporate financial goals” as well as “100% of her individual objectives, meriting” an increase;
  • Evidence showed that “King suffered a steady course of mistreatment from Thomas” that did not occur to male employees. For example, he “excluded King from important financial meetings” and “interfered with her management” of subordinates. He also imposed “unrealistic deadlines,” “denied her appropriate office space,” and spoke to her in a “rude, condescending, dismissive, and hostile manner — often in front of other colleagues”;
  • Thomas also “body shamed” King because of her weight, including staring at her midsection with “disgust” several times per week, suggesting she was eating too much in front of colleagues, and telling her she should “go to the gym,” something he did not do to male workers.

The company dismissed complaints by King, even after she discovered evidence suggesting that Thomas was manufacturing an excuse to fire her. He did fire her in 2017, claiming she had violated company policy almost two months earlier by approving a travel reimbursement of less than $57, which she believed “complied with Aramark’s policy.” HR “never asked King for her side of the story.”

King filed a federal lawsuit against Aramark under both state and federal law. The district court dismissed the state claims for reasons later upheld on appeal and granted summary judgment against King on her federal Title VII case. The court maintained that King’s hostile work environment claim was “time-barred” and that “no reasonable jury’ would believe her sex-based discrimination claims. She appealed to the Second Circuit.


How did Judge Robinson and the Second Circuit Rule and Why is it Impoatant?

 Judge Robinson wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed the lower court ruling on King’s Title VII claims and sent the case back so that she could present that case to a jury. Initially, Robinson rejected the untimeliness holding because, she explained, at least one act (the firing) occurred within the statutory period and was part of the “discriminatory pattern or practice of hostile treatment.” This meant that the “continuing violation” doctrine applied and King could present earlier evidence establishing the hostile work environment she suffered. Robinson wrote that in this decision, the court was “mak[ing] it clear” that a discrete act that “furthers” a discriminatory policy and occurs within the limitations period “can render timely a hostile environment claim based upon that policy.”

Robinson also rejected the district court’s view that no reasonable jury could find for King on her sex-based discrimination claim. After a careful review of the record, she concluded that particularly in light of Thomas’ “differential treatment of King as compared to her similarly situated male peers, a rational trier of fact could infer “ that King’s firing and adverse treatment “was based on her sex” and violated Title VII.

Judge Robinson’s opinion is obviously important to Kristen King, who will now have her day in court to prove that Aramark discriminated against her and violated her rights under Title VII. The decision also sets an important precedent in other discrimination cases concerning what can prove a continuing violation, particularly in the Second Circuit including New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. In addition, the case serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded nominees like Judge Robinson to our federal courts.