Last month, a Major League Baseball umpire filed a lawsuit against MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB alleging racial discrimination in baseball’s umpire promotion and post-season assignment policies. Hernandez v. The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and Major League Baseball, 1:17-cv-00456 (W.D. Ohio 2017).
Cuban-born Angel Hernandez filed suit in Ohio federal court alleging that he has been passed over multiple times for the chance to work a World Series and has not been promoted from temporary to permanent crew chief.
The suit alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio state law. The suit claims “Major League Baseball’s actions were intentional with reckless disregard for Hernandez’s rights.”
Many have dismissed Hernandez’s claims based on the fact that he has had been involved in some questionable umpiring in past, much of which has been well-documented; including calling Adam Rosale’s home run a double in 2013 and Giants announcer, Duane Kuiper, labeling him “unfit” for MLB umpiring.
Fortunately for Hernandez, it is possible for him to be both bad at his job and also prove successfully that he has been discriminated against. In fact, in past discrimination cases, employers have masked their discrimination by targeting employees on the pretense of poor performance. Hollander v. American Cyanamid Co., 895 F.2d 80, 84-85 (2nd Cir. 1990).
A plaintiff alleging racial discrimination must show that he or she is a member of a protected class, was qualified for the position, suffered an adverse employment action and that the adverse action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).
In his complaint, Hernandez notes he is indeed a member of a protected class, he was born in Cuba and is Latino. He further states he suffered adverse employment actions through MLB’s refusal to select him for various World Series assignments and MLB’s refusal to promote him to crew chief, despite his 24 years of experience and high marks on evaluations.
The suit notes that much of the discriminatory conduct began in 2011 when Joe Torre joined the Office of the Commissioner. The complaint makes reference to a potential personal feud between Hernandez and Torre, which can be traced back to 2001 when Torre was the manager of the Yankees.
Joe Torre, who, unhappy with a call he perceived to be incorrect, told the media that “[Hernandez] seems to see something nobody else does ... he just wants to be noticed.” Allegedly, Hernandez’s umpiring evaluations also took a downward turn when Torre was hired.
The complaint contends that this potential feud is racially motivated and reveals larger racial trends in baseball. Hernandez alleges that less qualified, white individuals have been consistently chosen over him, and other minorities, to work at the World Series and in the position of crew chief.
“The selection of these less qualified, white individuals over Hernandez was motivated by racial, national origin and/or ethnic considerations,” the complaint states.
According to Hernandez, only one of the 10 umpires promoted to crew chief since 2011 has been more experienced than he and, since 2000, no game has featured a permanent minority crew chief.
Further, since 2010, 34 out of the 35 World Series umpires have been white and the most recent World Series featured none of the top five umpires in terms of accuracy.
Instead, a number of veterans were chosen, which Hernandez argues shows that experience must weigh more heavily in the selection process than accuracy and performance.
To prove Major League Baseball engaged in a pattern of racially motivated discrimination, Hernandez would need to present evidence that well-qualified and deserving minority umpires were denied at the expense of their nonprotected colleagues.
A discrimination claim also puts the employer in the undesirable position of proving its promotions and conduct were based on criteria unrelated to race. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 803 (1973).
Objective measures would prove most helpful for MLB, such as the use of performance reports generated by high-end technology, standard evaluative practices or any other factors that would demonstrate the MLB’s business operation and personnel movement is not based on subjective conjecture, but rather, on substantive and logical calculation.
As long as the methods are consistently applied to all of its employees — and MLB is able to convincingly demonstrate this — MLB will likely prevail in the litigation.
For Hernandez’s suit to be successful, the persuasive argument will rely on a comprehensive look at the objective evaluative criteria used by MLB to evaluate and promote its umpires. This goes back to the existence of objective criteria and evaluations previously noted herein. The quality of MLB’s documentation will determine whether these claims are supported or refuted.
The statistics and pattern of promotions and post-season assignment policies of MLB are largely in Hernandez’s favor.
While the players on the field are as diverse as ever, MLB’s diversity numbers are not very promising when you look at who fills the positions of authority while dressed in blue. Only three managers are not white, eighty-nine percent of team vice presidents are white and just 10 of the ninety-two umpires are minorities.
If MLB can prove that its objective criterion justify Hernandez’s current position in the game, and that similar logic can account for the greater claim of minority underrepresentation, the league stands a good chance at prevailing in the lawsuit.
However, mere representations of Hernandez’s skill level or competency at umpiring will not suffice to disprove a racial discrimination claim. Regardless of how bad he may be at his job, as some reports suggest, Hernandez may still be a victim of discrimination.