February 8, 2008

Weekly Summary of New Alaska Supreme Court Opinions

Almost every week, the Alaska Supreme Court issues its written opinions on Friday. You can download free PDF versions of these opinions here. You can also subscribe to a free e-mail list that will e-mail you links to each week’s opinions here. Each week, I will try to post a summary of that week’s opinions, focusing primarily on those opinions addressing civil litigation matters. While Supreme Court Opinions dealing with family law (such as disputes over visitation with the family dog) or criminal matters (how to get barred from attending your own criminal trial) offer interesting reading at times, they are not particularly relevant to the issues the lawyers at Atkinson Conway & Gagnon normally face.

This week, there was only one opinion issued that is of interest. In Villaflores v. Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, Clarito Villaflores, who is Asian and over 40 years old, applied for a human resources position with ConocoPhillips. He was not hired. Mr. Villaflores then filed a complaint with Alaska’s Human Rights Commission, alleging that ConocoPhillips did not hire him because of his race and age. The Human Rights Commission rejected this claim and dismissed his case.

The primary issue on appeal was whether the Human Rights Commission’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. The Court noted that to prevail on a his employment discrimination case, Mr. Villaflores had to prove: (1) he belonged to a protected class; (2) he applied for and was qualified for the position he was denied; (3) his application was rejected despite his qualifications; and (4) the employer hired someone not in the same protected class. While Mr. Villaflores was in protected class (Asian and over 40), the Court found that he had failed to establish that he was qualified for the job. Specifically, his job application did not show that he had the requisite five to 10 years of human resources experience required by ConocoPhillips. Moreover, the person hired by ConocoPhillips did. Consequently, Mr. Villaflores claim was properly denied by the Human Rights Commission because Mr. Villaflores failed to make out a prima facie case of employment discrimination.

The Court also rejected Mr. Villaflores argument that a Seventh Circuit case, Milbrook v. IBP, Inc., 280 F.3d 1169 (7th Cir. 2002), required ConocoPhillips to hire the most qualified applicant, which, presumably, Mr. Villaflores argued was him. The Court noted that even if Mr. Villaflores had established that he was qualified for the position (which he had not), Milbrook gave the employer broad discretion to chose between equally qualified candidates.

While Villaflores v. Alaska State Commission for Human Rights does not change Alaska employment discrimination law, it is a good, short summary of some of the elements that an applicant claiming employment discrimination must prove. It also squarely rejects any reading of Milbrook that would tie the hands of an employer choosing between equally well-qualified applicants.