7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Defendants in Employment Discrimination and Retaliation Lawsuit

On October 11, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment on claims for race discrimination and retaliation.  Williams v. Office of the Chief Judge of Cook County, Illinois, et al., Nos. 15-2325 & 15-2554 (7th Cir. 10/11/2016).  The plaintiff, a probation officer who was told that she was fired for job abandonment, filed a lawsuit in which she alleged that she fired because of her race, in retaliation for complaining about racial harassment, and in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim.  Under Illinois law, there is a common-law claim for retaliatory discharge when an employee is terminated in retaliation for exercising his or her rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act (the "Act").  The employee must prove that he or she: (1) was an employee before the workplace injury; (2) exercised a right under the Act; and (3) that his or her discharge was causally related to the exercise of that right.  That does not mean that an employer can never fire an employee who has filed a workers' compensation claim.  An employer is not liable if its reason for the discharge is entirely unrelated to the employee's workers' compensation claim.  The plaintiff claimed that the decision-maker fired her in connection with a dispute about her return-to-work date from her injury-related leave of absence.  However, she failed to offer any evidence that the decision-maker knew of the dispute and, therefore, she could not establish the causal connection necessary to sustain her retaliation claim.

The plaintiff also did not produce enough evidence to survive summary judgment on her Title VII race discrimination and retaliation claims.  She argued that a white employee was given several chances to return to work after taking a similar leave.  However, the other employee was not similarly-situated to the plaintiff.  She was not directly comparable to the plaintiff in all material respects.  She kept her supervisor abreast of her leave extension requests, but the plaintiff failed to get in touch with her supervisor at all, and did not return to work when required to do so by her employer.  The plaintiff's failure to identify a similarly-situated employee who was treated more favorably than her under similar circumstances was fatal to her discrimination claim.  The plaintiff also claimed that she was fired in retaliation for reporting racial harassment by her white co-workers.  But there was no evidence that her report of racial harassment caused her termination, especially since she made the report three years before her termination.