In Bobo v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Sixth Circuit ruled that the district court erred in its management of discovery related to Walleon Bobo’s discrimination and retaliation claims brought against UPS.  Bobo, an African-American supervisor for UPS and a longstanding member of the Army Reserve and a combat veteran, was terminated in May 2007 for violating UPS’ company integrity policy, including falsifying certain driver safety forms. 

Following his termination, Bobo brought claims against UPS for discrimination and retaliation under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act, race discrimination and retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. section 1981, Title VII, and the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”).  The Sixth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the retaliation claims under section 1981, Title VII and THRA, but reversed and remanded for trial on the remaining claims. 

In reviewing the district court’s management of discovery, the Sixth Circuit was “troubled by both the procedural and substantive treatment of this case.”  In particular, the Court found that Bobo was improperly required to demonstrate an exact correlation between himself and other similarly situated individuals, rather than merely showing they were similar in all relevant respects, including having engaged in similar misconduct.  In the Sixth Circuit’s view, Bobo properly compared himself to several UPS supervisors who were Caucasian and not reserve members and “[h]ad Bobo received an opportunity for discovery on these comparators, a jury might have found them similarly situated.”  The Sixth Circuit also faulted the district court for improperly narrowing Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), which permits discovery of all non-privileged matters relevant to a party’s claim.  As a result, the Sixth Circuit found that the discovery order was contrary to law and should have been set aside by the district court.

It will remain to be seen whether Bobo will be utilized to attempt to broaden the realm of pre-trial discovery.  Needless to say, not many appellate cases reverse based on discovery rulings, and in that respect the case is significant.  At the same time, this is an employment case with a fairly fact-specific claim.  We can expect that future cases will probe the limits of Bobo, and it may not be long before the issue returns to the Sixth Circuit.