7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Title VII Race Discrimination Claim

On August 26, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff, a hospital security guard, claimed that he was fired because of his race, African-American, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Lane v. Riverview Hospital, No. 15-1118 (7th Cir. 8/26/2016).  The hospital claimed that it terminated his employment as a result of an alleged incident involving his interaction with a patient.  The question was whether he offered enough evidence to allow a reasonable jury to infer that he would not have been fired if he were not African-American and everything else remained the same.  The plaintiff argued that a similar incident involving a Caucasian security guard, who was not fired or disciplined as a result of the incident, raised an inference of discrimination.

However, the two incidents were not sufficiently similar.  The other security guard had denied the alleged misconduct, and the hospital credited his account, while the plaintiff admitted his actions.  The plaintiff also argued that the hospital misled the EEOC in its response his charge, which should raise an inference of discrimination.  An employer's dishonesty in defending or explaining an employment decision can support an inference of unlawful discrimination.  But the misrepresentation was an understandable mistake, and there was no evidence that it was deliberate.  Lastly, the plaintiff claimed that two race-related comments made by the human resources manager supported his claim.  The comments did not reflect a racial animus.  A human resources manager's non-hostile remark that merely acknowledges the potential for race to become an issue in an unrelated incident does not support an inference of discrimination.  Thus, the 7th Circuit concluded that a jury could not reasonably find that the hospital discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of his race when it made the decision to terminate his employment.

An interesting side note in this case is that the hospital had told the employee that if he did not resign, he would be fired.  He chose to resign, but the district court treated the situation as a constructive discharge.  That ruling was not appealed.  The defense of voluntary resignation is not available when an employer admonishes an employee that he or she must resign or be fired, and the employee resigns.  The so-called resignation is not a voluntary act under those circumstances.