Ninth Circuit Allows FEHA National Origin Claim

Raytheon Company is a defense contractor. The federal government required Raytheon to require security clearances.

Raytheon hired Hossein Zeinali for an enginerring position requiring a Secret security classification. While he was waiting for the security clearance, Raytheon let him perform other duties not requiring the Secret authorization.  Ultimately, the Department of Defense denied the security clearance. So, Raytheon fired him.  Zeinali sued for national origin discrimination.

The Ninth Circuit first held that it had jurisdiction, rejecting Raytheon's contention that there was none because federal courts cannot second-guess denials of security clearances.  Although federal courts indeed cannot overturn determinations about security clearances, that is not what Zeinali was suing about. He did not contest that he was rejected. Rather, he argued that Raytheon's decision to fire him because he did not meet the job qualification - obtaining the clearance - was pretextual.

The court agreed with Zeinali. He produced evidence that although Raytheon consistently said he would have to have a security clearance to retain his job, and although Raytheon imposed this requirement on many employee positions, Raytheon did not always enforce the requirement:

In light of the fact that Raytheon retained multiple non-Iranian engineers after their security clearances were revoked, Zeinali has raised triable disputes regarding (1)whether security clearances were a bona fide requirement for Raytheon engineers, and (2) whether Raytheon’s central purported reason for terminating him (his lack of a security clearance) was pretextual. The Supreme Court’s McDonnell Douglas opinion contains a salient observation about pretext:

“Especially relevant to such a showing [of pretext] would be evidence that white employees involved in acts against [the employer] of comparable seriousness to the [plaintiff’s disruptive protesting activities] were nevertheless retained or rehired. [An employer] may justifiably refuse to rehire one who was engaged in unlawful, disruptive acts against it, but only if this criterion is applied alike to members of all races.” McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 804.

Analogously, in the present case, Raytheon would certainly be justified in firing employees who lack security clearances, “but only if this criterion is applied alike to members of all races.” Id.; see also Godwin v. Hunt Wesson, Inc., 150 F.3d 1217, 1220 (9th Cir. 1998) (holding that pretext is shown if other employees with similar qualifications are treated more favorably).

So, here's a message you may have heard from an employment lawyer.  Consistency. There, no charge.

The case is Zeinali v. Raytheon Company and the opinion is here.