7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer on Title VII Race and National Origin Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

On January 29, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer in a lawsuit alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and the Illinois Human Rights Act ("IHRA"), in which the plaintiff-employee claimed that the employer failed to promote, disciplined, and demoted him because of his race and national origin, and in retaliation for his previous internal complaints of employment discrimination and workplace harassment.  Cervantes v. Ardagh Group, No. 17-3536 (7th Cir. Jan. 29, 2019).  His discrimination claims failed because he did not exhaust his administrative remedies.  His retaliation claim failed because he did not engage in protected activity, and there was no evidence of any causal connection between any protected activity and the adverse employment actions.

A plaintiff can only bring claims under Title VII or the IHRA that she has included in her original charge of discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") or the Illinois Department of Human Rights ("IDHR").  In this case, the plaintiff had only checked the box for 'retaliation' on the EEOC charge form, and did not check the boxes for discrimination based on race, national origin or any other protected characteristic.  He also failed to include specific allegation of race or national origin discrimination in the text of his EEOC charge.  Consequently, he could not bring the discrimination claims in his lawsuit because he failed to include them in his EEOC charge.  Moreover, his discrimination claims were not sufficiently related to his retaliation claim to squeeze the discrimination claims into the exception for claims that are like or reasonably related to an EEOC charge, and can be reasonably expected to grow out of an EEOC investigation of the charge.  Therefore, the plaintiff's discrimination claims were not within the scope of his retaliation charge, and the district court properly granted summary judgment on the discrimination claims.

To establish a retaliation claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must present evidence of: (1) statutorily protected activity; (2) a materially adverse employment action taken by the employer; and (3) a causal connection between the two.  The plaintiff alleged that he made an internal complaint of race and national origin discrimination, and that his supervisors subsequently disciplined and demoted him for his internal complaint.  However, he made his complaint to the union president and not to anyone at the employer company.  There was no evidence that the union president communicated his concerns to anyone at the employer company.  Thus, the plaintiff's retaliation claim failed, as a matter of law, because he did not properly allege that he engaged in any protected activity.  Moreover, even if he had alleged that he engaged in protected activity, his retaliation claim would still fail because none of his supervisors were aware of his complaints, and, therefore, there could be no causal connection between any protected activity and his discipline and demotion.