Judge William Pryor Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM) Judge William Pryor Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

A federal appeals court has revived part of a discrimination lawsuit filed by a black woman who claimed she was denied a transfer to a tech job because her employer “wanted a Korean in that position,” and was terminated for complaining about it.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a federal judge’s grant of summary judgment in part and allowed plaintiff Jerberee Jefferson to proceed with her case against Sewon America, where she worked as a temporary employee, was promoted to full-time in the finance division, and later fired.

The company claimed Jefferson was fired after a negative performance evaluation, but Jefferson argued she was terminated because she complained about being denied a position in the information technology department because of her race.

“The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Sewon. We reverse in part because Jefferson presented direct evidence that Sewon failed to transfer her on the basis of her race and nationality and circumstantial evidence that Sewon fired her in retaliation for her complaint, and we affirm in part because Jefferson failed to present substantial evidence that Sewon fired her on the basis of race or national origin,” Eleventh Circuit Judge William Pryor Jr. wrote in the court’s opinion.

According to the opinion, Jefferson approached her supervisor, Gene Chung, about transferring to the IT department at Sewon while she was in the probationary period of her new full-time finance clerk position and was taking technology classes at a local college.

Chung gave her a basic computer proficiency test, on which she performed poorly, according to Pryor. Later Chung informed Jefferson that she was ineligible for the transfer because she was inexperienced and because a higher-ranked manager “wanted a Korean in that position,” according to Pryor’s opinion.

At the same time, Jefferson was having issues with her managers, who claimed she was unproductive, returned from lunch late multiple times and did not silence her phone during work. According to Pryor, she received a negative performance review, and Sewon claimed Jefferson was fired as a result.

Jefferson received no written warning or final warning before her dismissal, despite the fact that there was a policy in place requiring just that, Pryor said. Jefferson filed suit claiming discrimination both in her denial of a transfer to the IT department and her firing.

The appeals court reversed the district judge’s application of what it said was the wrong legal standard in dismissing the denial of transfer claim, one that deals with circumstantial evidence when Jefferson presented direct evidence of discrimination.

However, Pryor said, “To be sure, at least some of the blame for this error lies with Jefferson because she repeatedly described her evidence as circumstantial, not as direct evidence of discrimination.”

Jon M. Gumbel of Burr & Forman in Atlanta represents Sewon and did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Jefferson’s lawyer, Amanda A. Farahany of Barrett & Farahany in Atlanta.