7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on ADA and Title VII Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

On December 21, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order summary judgment in favor of the defendant entered by the district court in a Title VII and ADA lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her employer discharged her from employment because of her disability, race and gender, as well as in retaliation for filing an EEOC Charge and a worker's compensation claim.  Carothers v. County of Cook et al., No. 15-1915 (7th Cir., 12/21/2015).  The plaintiff alleged disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), as well as race discrimination, sex discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").  To establish a valid claim for disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she is able to perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the employer took adverse job action against her on the basis of her disability.

Under the ADA, a disability is defined as: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a record of such impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such impairment.  Major life activities include, among other things, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.  The plaintiff argued that she has a mental impairment, anxiety disorder, that substantially limits her major life activity of working.  However, if working is the only major life activity that is impaired, then the plaintiff must establish that the impairment significantly restricted her ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities.  Demonstrating a substantial limitation in performing the unique aspects of a single specific job is not sufficient to establish that a person is substantially limited in the major life activity of working.  The 7th Circuit concluded in this case that the plaintiff's inability to perform the unique aspects of her specific job did not restrict her from performing a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs; therefore, she failed to establish that she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA, and her ADA claim cannot advance to trial.

The plaintiff also alleged race and gender discrimination in violation of Title VII, which may be established through the direct or indirect method of proof.  Under the direct method, a plaintiff must present either direct or circumstantial evidence that creates a convincing mosaic of discrimination.  The plaintiff raised circumstantial evidence of two allegedly racist remarks and an alleged prior discrimination suit against a supervisor.  However, the circumstantial evidence did not meet the requirement that it point directly to a discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.  The 7th Circuit concluded that one of alleged remarks was not racist and the other was too remote in time to tie into the employment decision at issue.  In addition, the supervisor against whom a suit allegedly had been previously filed was not involved in the employment decision, so the plaintiff could not establish any connection between the supervisor's allegedly discriminatory animus and the plaintiff's discharge from employment.  The 7th Circuit stated that, "bigotry, per se, is not actionable.  It is actionable only if it results in injury to a plaintiff; there must be a real link between the bigotry and an adverse employment action."

Under the indirect method of proof, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she is member of a protected class; (2) her job performance was meeting her employer's legitimate expectations; (3) she suffered a materially adverse job action; and (4) the employer treated similarly situated employees not in her protected class more favorably.  The plaintiff's discrimination claims failed under the indirect method because she was not meeting her employer's legitimate job expectations, and there was no evidence of disparate treatment.  The issue of whether a plaintiff met performance expectations for purposes of the indirect burden shifting method of proof is analyzed by examining her performance at the time of the adverse employment action.  Since the plaintiff was excessively absent and insubordinate in the two months preceding her discharge, she did not satisfy her employer's legitimate expectations.  Additionally, she failed to present evidence that similarly situated male or white employees were treated more favorably.

She also claimed that her employer retaliated against her for her protected activity of filing a worker's compensation claim as well as filing a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Retaliation claims may be established like discrimination claims under the direct or indirect methods of proof.  Under the indirect method, the plaintiff must identify similarly situated employees who did not engage in protected activity and were treated more favorably.  Under the direct method, the plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) she suffered a materially adverse job action; and (3) the employer's retaliatory intent caused the adverse action.  The plaintiff failed to identify any similarly situated co-workers who did not engage in statutorily protected activity and were treated more favorably.  She also failed to present evidence sufficient to establish the required causal connection between her protected activity and her discharge.  Uncorroborated speculation is not enough.