Jackson v. Federal Express Corp., 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 4802 (6th Cir. Mar. 6, 2008), is the latest in a series of Sixth Circuit decisions addressing the similarly-situated requirement in employment discrimination cases.  In Jackson, the Sixth Circuit confirmed the fact-specific nature of that inquiry and chided the district court for its “exceedingly narrow” construction of that element of discrimination claims. .For employers, the Jackson decision highlights the need to rely on practical, meaningful criteria – viewed in context – when making employment decisions based on employee comparisons.

Jackson began his employment with FedEx in 1979, working as a Technical Advisor in the Information Technology (“IT”) group for 15 years. Jackson primarily functioned as a system administrator and, in that capacity, upgraded and tested computer programs that FedEx purchased. Before joining FedEx, Jackson obtained a Masters of Business Administration and, while employed at FedEx, took computer programming courses. In 2000, Jackson’s job title changed to Senior Technical Analyst, and his group was assigned the PowerPad project. The six other employees in Jackson’s group were Caucasian and worked as programmers and business analysts rather than as technical analysts. Besides Jackson, none of the other employees had a master’s degree.

In August 2000, FedEx conducted a workforce adjustment of its IT department.  During that adjustment, Jackson’s manager completed Employee Contribution Assessment (“ECA”) packets for each employee in Jackson’s group. Jackson received the lowest ratings in his group. In September 2000, FedEx employees with the lowest ECA scores – including Jackson – were selected for termination. Jackson’s employment with FedEx ended on November 30, 2000.

Jackson’s case against FedEx, in which he initially alleged both race and age discrimination claims, proceeded to trial. After Jackson’s case-in-chief, the trial court granted FedEx’s motion to dismiss, determining that there were no similarly situated individuals with whom Jackson could be compared,a requirement for proving a prima facie case of discrimination. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court noted that, to be similarly situated, employees “have to have similar backgrounds, education, experience, job responsibilities, and performance.” The trial court found that, because most members of the group functioned as programmers whose job responsibilities did not require the same skill as Jackson’s, they were not similarly situated to Jackson. The only other employee in the group functioned as a business analyst but had not graduated from college. Because Jackson had no experience as a business analyst (as opposed to a technical analyst) and had a different educational background, the district court determined that the two could not be considered comparables.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit determined that the trial court’s “formulation of the similarly situated standard is exceedingly narrow.” The Court noted that, rather than making a true independent determination of relevant factors, the trial court examined only Jackson’s narrow job functions and FedEx’s stated requirements for the PowerPad project. Because there were only six employees with whom Jackson could be compared and because Jackson held a unique position within the group as the only systems administrator/technical analyst, the Court found that the district court’s narrow definition of similarly situated effectively removed Jackson from the protective reach of the anti-discrimination laws.  As a result, the Court overturned the trial court’s dismissal of Jackson’s case.

Although it is unclear how lower courts will define the “similarly situated” requirement in light of Jackson, the decision may lessen the burden on plaintiffs seeking to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Although the Sixth Circuit did not specify the exact ways in which the district court erred, one could make a credible argument that Jackson’s MBA, for example, was not a sufficient basis for distinguishing him from other members of his group for purposes of determining whether he was similarly situated to those individuals. After all, Jackson’s MBA does not appear to have played a key role in the performance of his job duties and may have struck the Sixth Circuit as a flimsy basis upon which to deny Jackson protection under the law.