7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer in Title VII Race Discrimination Lawsuit

On January 3, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's order granting a defendant-employer's motion for summary judgment in a Title VII race discrimination failure-to-promote lawsuit.  Barnes v. Board of Trustees Of The University of Illinois, et al., No. 19-1781 (7th Cir. Jan. 3, 2020).  The plaintiff filed a federal lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") after an administrator of the defendant-employer promoted a white applicant instead of the plaintiff, who is African-American.  The 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's order of summary judgment because the plaintiff did not present evidence that the administrator's stated reason for selecting the white applicant was pretext for unlawful racial discrimination.

The applicable legal standard at summary judgment in a Title VII employment discrimination case is whether the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that discrimination caused the subject adverse employment action--in this case, the failure to promote.  The burden-shifting proof paradigm established by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) remains a useful framework for focusing the evidence.  To survive summary judgment on his failure-to-promote claim, the plaintiff was required to present evidence that: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was qualified for the position sought; (3) he was rejected for the position; and (4) someone outside the protected class who was not better qualified was hired instead.  If he meets these elements of a prima facie case of employment discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to produce evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for hiring the white applicant over the plaintiff.  The burden of proof then shifts back to the plaintiff to produce evidence that the employer's proffered reason was pretext for discrimination.  Because the prima facie and pretext inquiry often overlap, if a defendant offers a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse job action, the court may proceed directly to the pretext analysis.

The defendant proffered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for hiring the white applicant instead of the plaintiff: the administrator believed, based on his interview, that he was the best candidate for the position.  Selecting a candidate that an employer honestly believes is better qualified for a position is a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason.  The plaintiff did not present evidence that suggested that the administrator lied about the reason.  Therefore, he failed to establish pretext.  Pretext is not just faulty reasoning or mistaken judgment on the part of an employer; rather, pretext is a lie--a phony reason for an adverse employment decision.  While the plaintiff criticized the defendant's hiring process, he did not present any evidence that the process was a ruse for racial discrimination.  Pretext is based on the veracity of a proffered reason, not whether an employer's decision-making process was accurate, wise, or well-considered.