Korean Lieutenant Loses Discrimination Claim

Hwa Jo is a lieutenant with the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. Jo was one of 19 lieutenants who applied for six available captain positions in July 2003. When Jo was not selected, be brought a lawsuit alleging that his Korean ancestry was the basis of the Department’s decision not to promote him.

A federal court began its decision by setting out the usual standards applied in “non-promotion” cases. The Court observed that Jo had the initial burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence a prima facie case of discrimination. If Jo met this burden of proof – which essentially consisted of establishing his Korean ancestry and the fact that he was not promoted – then the burden shifted to the District to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not promoting Jo. If the District established a nondiscriminatory reason, then Jo could only succeed if he showed that the District’s asserted justification was a pretext for discrimination.

In Jo’s case, the District was able to advance a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not promoting Jo. District supervisors explained to the Court that the promotional panel reached its decisions by “evaluating the experience of each candidate, whether the candidate has a residency preference provided by law to District of Columbia residents, and the candidate’s performance in his or her interview.” Conclusions of the panel were that Jo “did not demonstrate the qualities associated with successful captains as well as the six candidates that were selected for promotion.”

It then turned to Jo to show that the reasons advanced by the District were a pretext for discrimination. Jo largely relied upon his work record and the higher degree of experience that he had than the successful candidates. The Court found that this evidence failed to meet the necessary threshold: “Although Jo clearly values his own credentials and experience, a plaintiff’s subjective assessment of his own record is largely irrelevant. The inquiry must focus on whether the panel honestly believed in the reasons offered for the selection decision. Jo’s lack of evidence concerning the candidates who were selected for promotion is fatal to his qualifications-based argument because, without such evidence, Jo cannot show that the gap in the candidates’ relative qualifications was so great as to give rise to an inference of discrimination.”

Jo v. District of Columbia, 2008 WL 4705328 (D.D.C. 2008).

This article appears in the December 2008 issue