The Atlanta Journal Constitution published an important article on Sunday, October 20th. The front page article looked into a study of decisions in 2011 and 2012 by judges in the Northern District of Georgia(NDGA) when ruling on motions for summary judgment. The study was done by Atlanta plaintiffs employment law firm Barrett & Farahany (full disclosure: I used to work for Barrett & Farahany as an associate).
Motions for summary judgment are usually made after discovery has completed. The moving party (i.e. the party that files the motion) is arguing that looking at the facts in the best possible light for the other party, there is no “material fact” requiring a trial to resolve and that as a matter of law the facts show that the moving party should win. By winning a motion for summary judgment either in whole or in part, the moving party gets a decision in their favor without having to win at trial.
The study shows that in the NDGA, plaintiffs’ Title VII cases are thrown out on summary judgment more than 80% of the time compared to a national average of around 70%. Even more disturbing was the racial difference between various plaintiffs. For instance, African-American plaintiffs have their cases thrown out on summary judgment at a rate closer to 90%.
The problem with having so many cases thrown out on summary judgment is that it denies plaintiffs their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. Instead of having a jury serve its important role as finders of fact, judges have taken it upon themselves to act as arbiter of law as well as finder of fact. Using summary judgment so frequently also serves to weaken the protections of Title VII and makes it more difficult for people with legitimate cases to find a lawyer to help prosecute their case.
When you combine the findings of this study with the fairly recent Supreme Court decisions that make it more difficult for plaintiffs to win discrimination cases it seems like there is an effort to weaken the civil rights protections for which previous generations fought and died. Workers in Georgia need to realize that as it is at-will employment means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all. Weakening one of the few exceptions to at-will employment in Georgia takes away some of the protections that Georgia workers have against wrong and unfair treatment in the workplace.