7th Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Title VII Harassment, Disparate Treatment and Retaliation Claims

On July 20, 2017, the 7th Circuit reversed an order of the district court that had dismissed Title VII claims for hostile work environment, disparate treatment and retaliation.  Alamo v. Bliss et at., No. 15-2849 (7th Cir. 7/20/2017).  The plaintiff, a Hispanic City of Chicago firefighter, filed an employment discrimination lawsuit in federal court.  He alleged various forms of unlawful discrimination on the basis of his national origin under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), a failure to accommodate claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and a retaliation claim under Title VII.  The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's claims for failure to state a claim, and dismissed all of the plaintiff's federal claims.

On appeal, the plaintiff contended that he sufficiently pleaded a hostile work environment claim, a disparate treatment claim, and a retaliation claim.  The 7th Circuit agreed, reversed the dismissal, and remanded the case for further proceedings.  The plaintiff may establish a violation of Title VII by proving that he was subjected to a hostile work environment.  To state a hostile work environment claim based on national origin, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) he was subject to unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on his national origin; (3) the harassment was severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile or abusive working environment; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.  In determining whether a workplace is hostile, courts consider the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interfered with an employee's work performance.  The specific circumstances of the working environment and the relationship between the harassing party and the harassed also bear on whether that line was crossed.  Although a workplace need not be hellish to constitute a hostile work environment, a hostile work environment must be so pervaded by discrimination that the terms and conditions of employment are altered.  The 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff's complaint contained several allegations which, taken together, sufficiently stated a hostile work environment claim.  These included allegations of racial slurs, as well as physical threats and altercations, all motivated by the plaintiff's national origin, and sufficiently severe.

The 7th Circuit also concluded that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a disparate treatment claim.  To establish a Title VII disparate treatment claim, a plaintiff must allege that an employer took job-related action against him which was motivated by intentional discrimination.  The district court had dismissed the plaintiff's disparate treatment and retaliation claims on the ground that he did not allege adverse employment action.  An adverse employment action is a materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment that is more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities.  Adverse job actions include: (1) diminishing an employee's compensation, fringe benefits, or other financial terms of employment; (2) reducing long-term career prospects by preventing him from using the skills in which he is trained and experienced, so that his career is likely to be stunted; or (3) changing the conditions in which an employee works in a way that subjects him to a humiliating, degrading, unsafe, unhealthful, or otherwise significantly negative alteration in his work environment.  The plaintiff alleged that he was assigned to work at different locations excessively during his employment and subjected to a needlessly piece-meal and prolonged investigation in connection with his attempt to return from medical leave.  He contended that these constitute adverse employment actions.  The complaint, read in its entirety, alleged that the plaintiff was targeted for less desirable assignments based on his national origin.  Adverse employment actions may be unique to particular situations.  The plaintiff's allegations plausible state an adverse employment action.  

The 7th Circuit also reversed the dismissal of the retaliation claim.  To state a claim for unlawful retaliation under Title VII, a plaintiff must allege that he engaged in statutorily protected activity and suffered an adverse job action as a result of the protected activity.  The City argued that the lengthy gap in time between the plaintiff's protected activity and the adverse job action weakens any inference of causation between the two.  However, no bright-line timing rule should be used to determine whether a retaliation claim is plausible.  In this case, the delay in retaliatory activity could not break the causal chain between protected activity and adverse job action because the plaintiff was on medical leave during the delay, and not until his medical leave was about to expire did the City have its first opportunity to retaliate.  The complaint sufficiently alleged protected activity, adverse employment action, and a causal connection between the two; therefore, the plaintiff stated a valid retaliation claim.