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

On June 5, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer in a Title VII race discrimination and retaliation lawsuit.  LaRiviere v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, et al., No. 18-3188 (7th Cir. June 5, 2019).  The plaintiff, an African-American woman, who was notified that she would not be reappointed to her position, sued for race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").  Absent evidence that her ethnicity was the reason for her termination, or of a causal connection between her protected activity and her termination, her claims could not survive summary judgment.  While "[u]nmistakable evidence of racial animus--racial epithets or explicitly race-motivated treatment--makes for simply analysis....[t]he more complicated cases arise when there is no 'smoking gun' showing intentional employment discrimination."

Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting evidentiary framework, a Title VII employment discrimination plaintiff has the initial burden of proof to establish her prima facie case by demonstrating that: (1) she is member of a protected class, (2) her job performance met her employer's legitimate expectations, (3) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) one or more similarly situated co-workers outside of her protected class were treated more favorably than she.  In this case, the plaintiff did not identify racially derogatory comments or circumstantial evidence of a racial animus.  She merely argued that similarly situated white employees were not "treated as shabbily" as she was treated.  Without evidence of at least one specific similarly situated co-worker who was treated more favorably than the plaintiff in the same context, the plaintiff's generalized allegation of disparate treatment was not enough to advance her discrimination claim.

The plaintiff's Title VII retaliation claim was also too thin to survive summary judgment.  Her allegation that the defendant terminated her in retaliation for her prior state court lawsuit lacked evidentiary support.  The timing between the plaintiff's protected activity and her non-reappointment cut against her retaliation claim, because the defendant's employment decision was not made until ten months after her lawsuit.  There was no evidence that the decision was made in retaliation for her lawsuit.  There was also no evidence of a similarly situated employee who did not engage in protected activity who was treated more favorably.  The fact that the defendant decided to terminate the plaintiff ten months after her lawsuit was insufficient.