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Court reopens defamation case

A Black Muslim woman who was removed from her seat on a plane based on an accusation of theft by a store manager saw her defamation case reopened on Oct. 31 and returned to the District Court.

A fact issue exists as to whether the defamatory statement, a theft report to police, was motivated by discriminatory animus, held the Court of Appeals in an opinion by Judge Jennifer Frisch. The case is Aromashodu v. Swarovski North America Limited, et al. That fact issue prevents a determination that the store manager had a qualified privilege to make the police report.

“The record contains indirect evidence that respondents treated Aromashodu differently because of her membership in a protected class,” the court held.

Mariam Aromashodu, a Black Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, was shopping at a Swarovski jewelry store at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, owned by respondents. There were two other customers in the store, both white.

Manager Laura Wilkins assisted Aromashodu and placed three sets of earrings on a store counter from a “self-service spinner.” Aromashodu looked between the earring on the counter and the spinner. She eventually chose one pair and returned the other two to the spinner, where one of the white customers was standing. Aromashodu paid for her earrings and left the store.

Wilkins then noticed that earring were missing from the spinner and told police that Aromashodu stole them. Airport police removed her from the flight she had boarded.

They brought her back to the store where police found several inconsistencies in Wilkins’ report and concluded that likely Aromashodu didn’t steal anything. The store helped her to secure and pay for another flight.

McDonnell-Douglas test

Aromashodu filed a complaint under the Minnesota Human Rights Act for race and religious discrimination in a public accommodation, defamation per se and intentional infliction of emotional distress,  but lost at the trial court on summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed on the MHRA claim and the defamation claim.

As to the MHRA claim, Aromahodu argued that material, disputed facts existed on whether respondents discriminated her due to protected class status. The court agreed.

The Court of Appeals explained that with a circumstantial evidence claim such as this, a court may apply the three-part McDonnell-Douglas test. The test  which requires first that a party establish a prima facie case of discrimination, which means that the party is a member of a protected class, was treated differently, and the treatment was because of the party’s protected class status.

The burden then shifts to the place of public accommodation to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. If it does, the plaintiff then must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the reasons proffered are pretextual.

The court determined that Aromashodu established a prima facie case. It rejected the respondents’ argument that the record has no evidence that disparate treatment was based on her class status.

The court emphasized that a party may establish the presence of a discriminatory motive through indirect evidence. Indirect evidence includes proof of a difference in treatment with individuals similarly situated who are of a different racial origin than the complainant; or  proof that the treatment of the complainant was so at variance with what would reasonably be anticipated absent discrimination that discrimination is the probable explanation, Frisch wrote.

The court noted that there were three customers in the store, two white customers and Aromashodu. One of the white customers was close to the self-service spinner. Wilkins did not see the theft but said she was certain that Aromashodu was the thief.

“Stated another way, Wilkins treated Aromashodu differently than the white customers in the store. This different treatment is indirect evidence of discrimination,” wrote Frisch. A fact finder could find that discrimination was the cause of the treatment, the court said.

The court also found fact issues existed whether the proffered reason for accusing Aromashodu was pretextual.

Wilkins provided conflicting accounts of the event, first said that Aromoashodu purchased earrings and later said she didn’t, never searched the store for the earrings and instead relied only on her observation of the spinner.

“Wilkins offered conflicting, shifting explanations as to why she accused Aromashodu of stealing the earrings, rather than either of the two white customers in the store, Frisch wrote.

“While a fact-finder could reasonably conclude that Wilkins was not motivated by discriminatory animus and that she simply made an honest mistake, a fact- finder could also conclude that these inconsistencies support a conclusion that Wilkins was not truthful about her motive. We do not make credibility determinations or weigh evidence at the summary-judgment stage,” the court said.

The court also agreed that the trial court erred in finding that respondents were entitled to a qualified privilege when reporting a crime. “[I]f Wilkins made her report in good faith and with a proper motive, the report, even if untrue, would be subject to a qualified privilege absolving her of liability. We acknowledge that Wilkins alleges that she made the report in good faith and with a proper motive. But at the summary-judgment stage of the proceedings, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolve all doubts and factual inferences against the moving party,” Frisch wrote.

“We hold that the applicability of qualified privilege in a defamation action based on race discrimination cannot be determined as a matter of law where a genuine dispute of fact exists as to whether the defamatory statement was motivated by discriminatory animus,” the court said.

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