7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Title VII National Origin and Retaliation Case

On May 5, 2014, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on Title VII national origin discrimination and retaliation claims.  Hnin v. TOA, LLC, No. 13-3658 (May 5, 2014).  In its decision, the 7th Circuit reiterated the elements of a prima facie case of employment discrimination under the indirect method of proof: (1) plaintiff is a member of a protected class; (2) plaintiff was meeting his employer's legitimate job expectations; (3) plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) plaintiff's employer treated at least one similarly situated employee not in the plaintiff's protected class more favorably.  If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of intentional discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.  If the employer meets this burden, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to present evidence that the employer's reason is pretext for unlawful discrimination.

The 7th Circuit explained that a similarly situated employee must be directly comparable to the plaintiff in all material respects, which involves a common-sense, flexible analysis of relevant factors.  The factors include whether the employees had the same supervisor, were subject to the same employment standards, and engaged in similar conduct.  There must be enough common factors present to determine whether intentional discrimination was at play.  The 7th circuit found that the plaintiff's comparators were not similarly situated because their misconduct was not similar enough to infer discrimination.  Only one comparator was similarly situated--an employee who also committed sexual harassment--but he was also fired.  Thus, the plaintiff failed to present a triable issue of fact as to the similarly situated element of his prima facie case.

The 7th Circuit also conducted a pretext analysis, stating that the focus of the pretext inquiry is whether the proffered reason is a lie.  The question is not whether the employer's proffered reason was inaccurate or unfair, but whether the employer honestly believed the reason it has offered for the discharge.  The 7th Circuit found that the plaintiff failed to raise any evidence suggesting that the decision-maker did not honestly believe his reasons for terminating the plaintiff's employment.  Therefore, the 7th Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment as to the plaintiff's Title VII national origin discrimination claim.

The 7th Circuit also reviewed the elements of a Title VII retaliation claim: (1) plaintiff engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) plaintiff suffered a material adverse job action; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse job action.  There are four categories of circumstantial evidence to establish the causal connection element: (1) suspicious timing; (2) disparate treatment; (3) pretext; and (4) statistical evidence.  There were twelve months between the plaintiff's complaints of discrimination and his termination--not at all close enough in time to establish causation.  Timing is not suspicious when the events are separated by a year.  The 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff failed to present a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence that would permit a jury to infer retaliation.  Therefore, the 7th Circuit also affirmed the grant of summary judgment as to the plaintiff's Title VII retaliation claim.