ABSTRACT: The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals in Shiffman v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Club, LLC recently reviewed a claim of religious discrimination that failed at the trial court level. The Court analyzed the applicable standards for an employee-plaintiff offering direct evidence versus indirect evidence of religious discrimination. As there was insufficient direct or indirect evidence to support a discrimination claim, the court affirmed the trial court’s granting of the Royals’ motion for summary judgment.

The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals recently reviewed the essential elements of a submissible claim of religious discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act. In Shiffman v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Club, LLC, a terminated employee Steve Shiffman asserted claims against his former employer, the Kansas City Royals, for religious discrimination, age discrimination, and related retaliation, and hostile work environment.

Shiffman was a ten-year employee with the Royals holding the title of Senior Director of Ticket Sales and Services at the Kauffman Stadium, reporting to the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development. In this position, Shiffman oversaw the sale of individual, group, premium tickets, and suites. His direct report had previously been responsible for the sales process and related staff for ticket sales. Over time, Shiffman’s junior employee became responsible for the daily operations of the Ticket Sales and Services Department.

After the Royals were sold in November 2019, its new senior management team undertook a review of the Royals’ operations, including the Ticket Sales and Services Department. After that review, and a shift in duties between Shiffman’s junior employee and Shiffman’s manager, the Royals’ management determined that his position as Senior Director should be eliminated as redundant, and Shiffman was terminated shortly before his sixtieth birthday. The Royals did not replace Shiffman, nor did they promote his junior employee.

In his petition, Shiffman advanced four claims: religious discrimination, age discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. In support of his claims, Shiffman referenced comments made by a Royals’ senior manager, in the presence of other employees, which he alleged reflected negatively on his faith.

Responding to the Royals’ Motion for Summary Judgment, he characterized the manager’s statement as “referencing an issue with getting the Jewish community center’s consent to use their logo on the Royals’ website.” Shiffman also claimed that he reported the comment to the human resources department but did not have an opportunity to place a written complaint prior to his termination.

In a more conclusory manner, Shiffman had claimed in his petition that he was subjected to a hostile work environment based on harassment and discrimination of, among other things, improper discipline and attacks on his character. Shiffman alleged that the harassment was driven by his age, religion, and prior complaints, all of which were known, or should have been known, by the Royals’ management. The Royals moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted.

On appeal, Shiffman argued that, as to his religious discrimination claim, the trial court record included sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find that his termination was motivated by his religion. In its ruling, the Court of Appeals noted the different analyses that apply to claims involving direct evidence of discrimination, and those involving only circumstantial evidence. A prima facie case of religious discrimination based on direct evidence requires an adverse employment action, a showing that the motivating factor was religion, and that the employee suffered damage. But in his reply to the Royals’ motion for summary judgment, Shiffman admitted that he relied exclusively on circumstantial evidence to support his claim. As there was no direct evidence of religious discrimination, the trial court was then required to apply the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas v. Green, developed decades ago with respect to federal-law discrimination claims.

Under that analysis, the Western District found that three of the four McDonnell Douglas requirements were met. First, the plaintiff, who is Jewish, is a member of a protected class due to his religious affiliation or beliefs. Second, he had a satisfactory work record and therefore had met the employer’s reasonable expectations. Third, the employee experienced an adverse employment action (his termination when his job was eliminated). As to the fourth requirement, however, the Court agreed with the trial court that the circumstances did not support an inference of religious discrimination. Consequently, the burden of production did not shift to the Royals to rebut a presumption of discrimination by producing evidence that Shiffman’s job elimination and layoff were based on legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons.

The Court noted that even if the burden had shifted to the Royals, the Royals articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for their decision (elimination of a redundant position), and Shiffman failed to identify any other similarly situated employees outside of his protected class treated more favorably or differently than himself. Furthermore, Shiffman only identified one offensive comment made by a single co-worker related to his religion. The Western District cited a federal court opinion for the proposition that a “single, isolated, offensive comment is insufficient to support an inference of religious discrimination.”  In fact, the Court found nothing in the record demonstrating that the co-worker’s comment had any connection with his termination.

Again, even if the McDonnell Douglas framework were applicable, the Western District noted that the burden would have reverted to Shiffman after the Royals rebutted the presumption of discrimination. Shiffman had failed, however, to advance any credible evidence exposing the Royals’ actions in the termination decision as a mere pretext for intentional discrimination. As such, the appellate court found that the trial court properly granted the Royals’ Motion for Judgment as it related to religious discrimination.

Successful Missouri employers are well acquainted with both the MRHA and federal law prohibitions against workplace discrimination. The Shiffman opinion serves as a reminder that analytically, principles of federal anti-discrimination law may be applied to MHRA claims. In this case, the Court properly observed that one isolated offensive comment generally cannot support an employment law claim. But a prudent employer that becomes aware of an inappropriate comment should consider the need for corrective action, to prevent further misconduct that may be actionable. Coordination with employment law counsel can be helpful in mitigating the potential risks of a workplace claim of religious or any other form of discrimination.