On August 23, 2016, the 7th Circuit reversed a $2 million jury verdict on an Illinois workers' compensation retaliatory discharge claim. Hillmann v. City of Chicago, No. 14-3438 & 14-3494 (7th Cir. 8/23/2016). The plaintiff worked for the City in its Department of Streets and Sanitation for three decades, until the City eliminated his position in a reduction-in-force ("RIF"). He filed a lawsuit against the City alleging that he was targeted for elimination in the RIF because he exercised his rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act ("IWCA") and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). After a jury trial on the IWCA retaliation claim, the jury returned a $2 million damages verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The judge found for the City after a bench trial on the ADA retaliation claim. Both sides appealed.
U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois
On August 19, 2016, the 7th Circuit reversed the district court's entry of summary judgment in an employment discrimination claim under Section 1981 and the Illinois Human Rights Act. Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., No.15-2574 (7th Cir. 8/19/ 2016). The plaintiff worked as a freight broker for the defendant for seven years until he was discharged. The defendant claims that it fired the plaintiff for falsifying business records. The Plaintiff claims that the defendant fired him because of his Mexican ethnicity. He also claims that he was subjected to a hostile work environment in the form of ongoing ethnic slurs throughout his employment that increased in frequency and intensity in the months leading up to his discharge.
On July 28, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a sexual orientation discrimination claim for failure to state a cause of action under Title VII, and held that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual preference is not covered by Title VII's prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex. Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, No. 15-1720 (7th Cir. 7/28/2016). A lesbian part-time professor filed this case under Title VII alleging that the college denied her full-time employment on the basis of her sexual orientation. The college filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that sexual orientation is not a protected classification under Title VII. The district court agreed. In a lengthy opinion, the 7th Circuit clarified that sexual orientation discrimination is outside of the scope of and therefore not unlawful under Title VII. The 7th Circuit's decision addresses and rejects the (opposite) position advanced by the EEOC, that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII.
On July 21, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a lawsuit in which a federal employee alleged that his lack of promotion or salary increase was discriminatory on the basis of his race and sex, that he was subjected to unlawful retaliation for complaining about it, and that he was subjected to a hostile work environment. Poullard v. McDonald, Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, No. 15-1962 (7th Cir. 7/21/2016). In the Title VII disparate-pay context, the question is whether a plaintiff may show equal work for unequal pay based on his or her protected class. The federal employee's pay discrimination claim failed because he did not identify a similarly situated employee outside of his protected classes who was paid more for the same work. It was difficult for the plaintiff to argue that his supervisor was similarly situated, especially where the supervisor had more work experience and a higher grade level.
On July 22, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment on claims alleged by a teacher that she was not promoted to various positions because of her gender, race and age, in violation of Title VII, Section 1981, and the ADEA. Riley v. Elkhart Community Schools, No. 15-3166 (7th Cir. 7/22/2016). The district court correctly held that the plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence for any of her claims to survive summary judgment. To proceed to trial on a failure to promote claim, a plaintiff must produce sufficient direct or circumstantial evidence that the employer's promotion decisions were intentionally discriminatory or make an indirect case of employment discrimination under the burden-shifting method. To demonstrate a prima facie case of failure to promote, a plaintiff must produce evidence showing that: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was qualified for the position sought; (3) she was rejected for the position; and (4) the employer promoted someone outside of the protected class who was not better qualified for the position.
On July 6, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment entered in favor of the defendant in a disability discrimination lawsuit in which an employee sued her former employer under the Rehabilitation Act, contending that she was discharged on account of an anxiety disorder and related disabilities. Felix v. Wisconsin Department of Transportation, No. 15-2047 (7th Cir. 7/6/2016). The district court entered summary judgment against the plaintiff on the ground that the undisputed facts demonstrated that she was discharged not solely because of her disabilities, but instead based on workplace behavior that indicated to the employer that she posed a safety risk to herself and others.
On July 14, 2016, the 7th Circuit reversed the dismissal of a Title VII retaliation claim. Hatcher v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, et al., No. 15-1599 (7th Cir. 7/14/2016). The plaintiff, a university professor, claimed that she was denied tenure on the basis of her gender and in retaliation for filing a charge of gender discrimination against the university with the EEOC. The university contended that it denied her tenure because she allegedly produced insufficient scholarship. The district court dismissed the retaliation claim for failure to state a cause of action. The 7th Circuit held that her complaint stated a plausible Title VII retaliation claim for filing her charge with the EEOC.
On May 6, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in an age discrimination lawsuit filed by a tenured professor against a college under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). Roberts v. Columbia College Chicago, et al., No. 15-2079 (7th Cir., 5/6/2016). In this case, a college terminated a professor after it discovered that he had allegedly plagiarized several chapters in a textbook. He claimed that his termination was unlawful discrimination on the basis of his age. The ADEA prohibits an employer from terminating or otherwise discriminating against an employee because of his or her age. The protected class under the ADEA covers individuals who are 40 years of age or older. The plaintiff did not produce any evidence that the decision-maker harbored any age-based discriminatory animus against him. Instead, he tried to advance his claim under the "cat's paw" theory of liability--that the decision-maker's decision was influenced by a subordinate employee--who acted for discriminatory reasons.
On April 27, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that the defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her race (black), in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended ("Title VII"), and failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disability (chronic fatigue syndrome), in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Wells v. Winnebago County, Illinois, No. 15-1805 (7th Cir., 4/27/2016). The district court granted summary judgment on two grounds: (1) that any discrimination was attributable to state rather than county workers; and (2) there was not enough evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find discrimination. The 7th Circuit disagreed with the district court's first reason, stating that employers must control the behavior of others in the workplace to ensure nondiscriminatory work conditions; and that the federal anti-discrimination laws cannot be so easily evaded.
On March 18, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII lawsuit in which the plaintiff sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") for workplace discrimination on the basis of race, retaliation for filing prior EEOC charges, and hostile work environment. Boss v. Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, No. 14-2996 (7th Cir., 3/18/2016). The plaintiff was employed by HUD as a general engineer for nearly a decade. During his employment, he filed one complaint of sex, race and age discrimination with the EEOC, followed by another complaint of race discrimination and retaliation. In his federal lawsuit, the plaintiff claimed that various negative job actions were taken against him in retaliation for his EEOC complaints and because of his race. The district court granted summary judgment on the grounds that the incidents of which he complained did not constitute adverse employment actions, he was not subjected to disparate treatment, and he was not subjected to a hostile work environment.