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Hittle v. City of Stockton (9th Cir. 22-15485 5/17/24) Employment Discrimination | Religion

By May 17, 2024June 24th, 2024Uncategorized

The panel filed (1) an order amending the opinion filed on August 4, 2023, and denying a petition for panel rehearing and rehearing en banc; and (2)an amended opinion affirming the district court’s summary judgment in favor of defendants in Ronald Hittle’s employment discrimination action under Title VII and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Hittle alleged that he was terminated from his position as Fire Chief for the City of Stockton based upon his religion and, specifically, his attendance at a religious leadership event.

In the amended opinion, the panel held that employment discrimination claims under Title VII and the California FEHA are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden- shifting framework, under which the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating that (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was qualified for his position; (3) he experienced an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated individuals outside his protected class were treated more favorably, or other circumstances surrounding the adverse employment action give rise to an inference of discrimination. The burden then shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged actions. Finally, the burden returns to the plaintiff to show that the proffered nondiscriminatory reason is pretextual. Alternatively, the plaintiff may establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment by showing direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination. Hittle was required to show that his religion was “a motivating factor” in defendants’ decision to fire him with respect to his federal claims, and that his religion was “a substantial motivating factor” with respect to his FEHA claims.

The panel concluded that Hittle failed to present sufficient direct evidence of discriminatory animus in defendants’ statements and the City’s notice of intent to remove him from City service. Hittle also failed to present sufficient specific and substantial circumstantial evidence of religious animus by defendants. The district court’s grant of summary judgment in defendants’ favor was appropriate where defendants’ legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing Hittle were sufficient to rebut his evidence of discrimination, and he failed to persuasively argue that these non-discriminatory reasons were pretextual.

Dissenting from the denial of rehearing en banc, Judge Callahan, joined by Judge VanDyke, wrote that she joined her dissenting colleagues’ concern that the panel’s opinion fails to follow the Supreme Court’s directive prohibiting discrimination based on religion. She also feared that the panel’s opinion would be read to foreclose claims of discrimination for all protected classes because it gives only lip service to the Supreme Court’s directive that, on summary judgment, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.

Dissenting from the denial of rehearing en banc, Judge Ikuta, joined by Judges Callahan and R. Nelson, wrote that the panel’s opinion is in tension with other Ninth Circuit Title VII cases, which have held that, as a general matter, the plaintiff in an employment discrimination action need produce very little evidence in order to overcome an employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Dissenting from the denial of rehearing en banc, Judge VanDyke, joined by Judge Callahan as to Parts I, II, III, and IV(A), wrote that Hittle produced ample evidence of the City’s intent to discriminate, and that was enough to at least survive summary judgment. Judge VanDyke wrote that the panel abdicated its responsibility to read the record in the light most favorable to Hittle, allowed employers to escape liability for repeating discriminatory remarks simply by hiding behind those who say them first, and mangled Title VII’s “motivating factor” analysis. Judge VanDyke also wrote that, in his view, the alternative reasons offered by the City were not legitimate or nondiscriminatory, but are instead further evidence of the City’s discriminatory intent and rest on a misunderstanding of its obligations under the Establishment Clause based on the now-discredited endorsement test.