7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Title VII Hostile Work Environment and Retaliation Claims

On August 21, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's order granting the defendant-employer's motion for summary judgment in a Title VII lawsuit, in which the plaintiff-former employee alleged that the employer had subjected him to a hostile work environment and discharged him in retaliation for his complaints about racial discrimination, in violation of Title VII.  Smith v. Illinois Department of Transportation, No. 18-2948 (7th Cir. 8/21/2019).  To survive summary judgment on his retaliation claim, the plaintiff was required to show that a reasonable jury could find that he engaged in protected activity, that he suffered an adverse employment action, and that the adverse action was motived by a protected activity.  The only issue was whether the employer terminated the plaintiff because he complained about racial discrimination.  The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court, that a reasonable jury could not find in Smith's favor.  Because there was extensive evidence that the plaintiff failed to meet his employer's legitimate expectations, a reasonable jury could not find that the employer fired him for his protected activity, rather than for his poor job performance.

The 7th Circuit also agreed with the district court on the plaintiff's hostile work environment claim.  A hostile work environment claim requires four elements:  (1) the employee was subject to unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on a protected characteristic; (3) the harassment was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of employment and created a hostile or abusive working environment; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.  The majority of the harassment--mostly profanity--that the plaintiff alleged was unconnected to his race.  Consequently, he failed to meet the second prong of the elements required for a hostile work environment claim.  "Title VII imposes no general civility code."  Crude, unpleasant workplace behavior cannot support a hostile work environment claim unless it is based on the employee's protected characteristic(s).  The plaintiff introduced no evidence that his supervisors swore at him because he was African-American; therefore, the profanity that he alleged did not establish a hostile work environment.  Title VII does not provide employees with a remedy for workplace abuse unrelated to a protected characteristic.