On August 8, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII national origin discrimination case. Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, No. 18-2844 (7th Cir. 8/8/2019). The plaintiff was hired as Director of Music for a parish, but was demoted to the job of an organist, and subsequently fired. He claimed in his employment discrimination lawsuit that the defendant discriminated against him on the basis of his Polish heritage. Until his demotion, he could have been terminated for any reason, because as Director of Music he held substantial authority over the conduct of religious services, and, therefore, would have been treated as a minister for purposes of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutherine Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), which holds that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to ministers.
U.S. Supreme Court
On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the requirement under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") that a complainant must first file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") as a precondition to the commencement of a Title VII lawsuit in court is not jurisdictional. Ford Bend County, Texas v. Davis, 587 U.S. ___ (2019). Title VII proscribes employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII also prohibits retaliation against persons who assert rights under the statute. As a precondition to filing a Title VII employment discrimination lawsuit in court, a complainant must first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. The Supreme Court considered whether Title VII's charge-filing precondition is a jurisdictional requirement that may be raised by the defense at any stage of a lawsuit, or a procedural prescription mandatory if timely raised, but subject to waiver if not timely raised. In an opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court held that the charge-filing precondition is not jurisdictional. Consequently, a plaintiff's failure to file a charge of discrimination before filing a Title VII lawsuit must be timely raised as an objection or a defense early in the lawsuit. Otherwise, the objection or defense may be forfeited.
On February 20, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of an employer in a Title VII racial harassment lawsuit, in which the employee's immediate supervisor made racial epithets directly to the employee. Gates v. Board of Education Of The City of Chicago, No. 17-3143 (7th Cir. Feb. 20, 2019). The plaintiff's supervisor used the N-word twice and threatened to write up his "black ass." The district court applied the wrong legal standard for hostile work environment claims, erroneously stating that "the workplace that is actionable is one that is hellish." However, "[h]ellish is not the standard a plaintiff must satisfy to prevail on a hostile work environment claim."
On November 29, 2018, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII retaliation lawsuit in which the plaintiff, a federal employee, alleged that his employer retaliated against him for filing an EEO complaint. Lewis v. Wilkie, No. 18-1702 (7th Cir. 11/29/2018). The plaintiff's employment had previously been terminated, but after a successful Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint, he was reinstated to his former position as a cook. He alleged that upon reinstatement, he was subjected to retaliation for his EEO activity through a variety of employment actions. The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court's conclusion that none of the retaliatory actions alleged by the plaintiff constituted a materially adverse employment action.
On October 22, 2018, the 7th Circuit ruled that the district court erred in invalidating a waiver clause in the parties' arbitration agreement, vacated the district court's order enforcing a $10 million arbitration award in a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act for multiple wage claims, and remanded the case to the district court to conduct the threshold inquiry regarding class or collective arbitrability to determine whether the arbitration clause of the employment agreement authorizes collective arbitration. Herrington, et al. v. Waterstone Mortgage Corporation, No. 17-3609 (7th Cir. 10/22/2018). The plaintiff-employee filed a collective action against her employer for alleged minimum wage and overtime wage and hour violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). A collective action allows similarly situated employees to opt in to the lawsuit. The district court compelled arbitration pursuant to the arbitration agreement between the employer and employee, but struck down as unlawful a waiver clause that appeared to forbid class or collective arbitration of the plaintiff's claims. The arbitrator conducted a collective arbitration over the employer's objections and awarded more than $10 million in damages and attorneys' fees to the plaintiff and 174 similarly situated employees.
On May 21, 2018, the United States Supreme Court, in a landmark employment law decision, held that arbitration agreements providing for individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve labor disputes must be enforced. Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 584 U.S. __ (2018). Justice Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy joined. The case involved employers and employees who entered into employment contracts providing for individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve employment law disputes. The employees nonetheless sought to litigate Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") wage and hour claims through class or collective actions in federal court. The Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA") generally requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms unless they are invalid under contract law. However, the employees argued that the FAA's savings clause removes the requirements to enforce arbitration agreements if the arbitration agreement violates some other federal law; and that by requiring individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve wage and hour claims, which would preclude employees' rights to litigate labor claims on a class-wide or collective basis, the arbitration agreements violated the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") and therefore are invalid and unenforceable. The majority rejected the employees' arguments, stating that the employment law arbitration agreements "must be enforced" and that "neither the Arbitration Act's savings clause nor the NLRA suggest otherwise."
On April 26, 2018, the 7th Circuit held that the disparate impact provision of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") protects both outside job applicants and current employees from employment practices that have a disparate impact on older workers. Kleber v. CareFusion Corporation, No. 17-1206 (7th Cir. 4/26/2018). The ADEA prohibits employment practices that discriminate intentionally against older workers as well as employment policies that are facially neutral but have a disparate impact on older workers. In this case, the 7th Circuit recognized a cause of action under the ADEA for disparate impact failure-to-hire, in the context of a hiring policy which limited the applicant pool for an attorney position to applicants with three to seven years (but no more than seven years) of legal experience.
On April 24, 2018, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant employer in a Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") interference lawsuit on the basis that the suit was time-barred under the FMLA's two-year statute of limitations. Sampra v. United States Department of Transportation, No. 17-2621 (7th Cir. 4/24/2018). The plaintiff sued her employer alleging that it unlawfully interfered with her rights under the FMLA by reassigning her to a different position after she returned from pregnancy leave. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant on the merits, finding that the plaintiff was offered essentially the same position upon her return from FMLA pregnancy leave. The 7th Circuit affirmed, without reaching the merits, on the different ground that the plaintiff's FMLA lawsuit was time-barred because the plaintiff failed to file her complaint within the applicable two-year statute of limitations. The three-year statute of limitations did not apply because the plaintiff failed to provide evidence that the defendant willfully violated her rights under the FMLA.
On February 13, 2018, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a disability discrimination lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her former employer fired her because of her disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc., No. 17-2332 (7th Cir. 2/13/2018). The defendant argued that the First Amendment's ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws, including the ADA, barred the plaintiff's lawsuit. The district court agreed, concluding that the defendant, a Jewish day school, is a religious institution and that the role of the plaintiff as a Hebrew teacher for the school was ministerial.
On April 3, 2017, the United States Supreme Court delivered an opinion in which it discussed the authority of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), to issue a subpoena to obtain evidence from an employer that is relevant to its investigation of a charge of employment discrimination. McLane Company, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 581 U.S. __ (2017). Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and provides the EEOC with enforcement authority. When a charge of discrimination is filed, the EEOC is required to notify the employer and conduct an investigation of the charge. It is authorized to issue, and seek enforcement from a district court, of a subpoena to obtain documents, data or witness testimony that is relevant to its investigation of the unlawful employment practices alleged in a charge.