Just because you say you’re good, it doesn’t make it so.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Mount Vernon Holdings, LLC d/b/a Best Western Mount Vernon, Civil Action No. 01:09cv1099 (E.D. Va. July 20, 2010). The named plaintiff in this case, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC), is the agency of the United States government that is entitled to bring suits to enforce Title VII, the federal law which prohibits employment discrimination. The defendant, Mount Vernon Holdings, LLC, purchased a hotel on April 24, 2007 and thereafter did business as Best Western-Mount Vernon. When the defendant purchased the hotel, it hired Hispanic individuals to fill seven out of eight housekeeping jobs. The EEOC claimed that the hotel discriminated against non-Hispanic individuals when it made these hirings. The defendant sought summary judgment, on the grounds that all the material facts of the case were undisputed and that the defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Prior to April 24, 2007, the previous owners of the hotel had received two poor quality assurance ratings from Best Western International. In October 2006, an unannounced inspection turned up many housekeeping and maintenance deficiencies, such as burn stains, peeling wall vinyl, mildewed wall vinyl, dirty night stands, broken or marked furniture, dirty carpets, dirty HVAC vents, soiled upholstery, discolored and stained floor file grout, a stained toilet seat, and excessive cobwebs. This poor rating put the previous owners’ membership status in the Best Western brand in jeopardy. A re-inspection of the hotel in January 2007 turned up more deficiencies of the same type.

As of February 2007, Best Western International ranked the hotel as the seventh worst property of its North American membership. The Best Western board of directors was considering cancelling the hotel’s membership, which would mean that the hotel could not operate under the Best Western name. In addition, Best Western International removed the hotel’s ability to take reservations through the Best Western on-line reservation system.

It was against this backdrop that the new owners agreed to buy the hotel. Best Western International agreed not to cancel the hotel’s membership if the new owners would make material changes in the hotel’s operation. As a condition of the purchase, the previous owners agreed to terminate all of the hotel’s employees immediately before the April 24, 2007, closing with payment in full of all wages, benefits, and accrued vacation. The defendant retained sole discretion whether to rehire any of the previous owner’s employees and delegated authority for those decisions to its General Manager, Ms. Vance. Ms. Vance spent about three weeks before April 24, 2007, observing the previous owner’s staff to see how well they did their jobs.

Ms. Vance rehired ten of the previous owner’s twenty employees. On the new staff, eleven employees were of Hispanic national origin, six of whom came from the previous owner’s staff. Of the housekeepers, seven of eight were Hispanic. The basis of the plaintiffs’ complaint was that Ms. Vance preferred Hispanic individuals for the housekeeping positions and illegally discriminated against the four individual plaintiffs, who were not hired.

The court went into detail about the deposition testimony of the hotel and its employees regarding the performance, work attitude, and work ethics of the plaintiff employees. Ms. Vance testified, and other employees confirmed, that the general lack of cleanliness at the hotel was largely attributable to these employees. The court did not point out any testimony that refuted Ms. Vance’s conclusions, but did point out that, after new management took over, the hotel’s rankings improved dramatically and its improvement was applauded by Best Western International.

The court granted the hotel’s motion for summary judgment in part because the plaintiffs did not have the evidence to prove their basic case. In order for the plaintiffs to present a case of discriminatory failure to hire under Title VII, they had to prove at least these four essential elements:

  1. That each plaintiff is a member of a protected group;
  2. That each plaintiff applied for the position in question;
  3. That each plaintiff was qualified for the position; and
  4. That each plaintiff was rejected from the position under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.

The court focused on the third element. The plaintiffs had argued that they were qualified for the positions – after all, they had held the positions in question before the hotel was sold to the new owners. With respect to the third element, though, the court held that it was the employer’s prerogative, not the employee’s, to establish the relevant criteria and expectations for continued employment. What is more, the employee’s own judgment or evaluation of his or her qualifications has little if any weight: “the Court will leave the employer as the judge of the employee’s job performance.” In this case, the court noted that the employer had pointed out a number of objective observations that supported the conclusion that these employees were unqualified.

Based in part on this holding, the court found that there was no genuine issue of fact that the plaintiff employees were not qualified for the housekeeper positions and granted summary judgment in favor of the hotel.

Going a step further, the court found that the new owner’s need to turn around the hotel’s operation – and the new owner’s desire to get away from a prior institutional culture of apathy and insubordination – set forth a valid reason for the hotel’s refusal to hire the plaintiff employees. In its discussion of this “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason,” the court said that an employer was entitled to consider and weigh subjective factors about an employee, such as a commitment to working hard, a good attitude, an eagerness to change and a willingness to adapt. Thus, the court found, even if plaintiffs had shown that they were qualified for the jobs, the employer’s circumstances would still have legitimized its failure to hire them.

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