Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Summary Judgment on IHRA Employment Discrimination Claims

On April 2, 2019, the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, reversed the trial court's order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer in an employment discrimination lawsuit under the Illinois Human Rights Act ("IHRA"), in which the plaintiff-employee claimed that her employer unlawfully discriminated against her because of her sex, race, national origin, and age, and unlawfully retaliated against her for complaining about it.  Lau v. Abbott Laboratories, 2019 IL App (2d) 180456 (Second Dist. April 2, 2019).  The IHRA is an Illinois anti-discrimination statute that contains the same employee protections as the federal anti-discrimination statutes (as well as some additional protected classifications that are not covered by the federal laws).  Illinois courts interpreting the IHRA are guided by federal case law interpreting the federal anti-discrimination laws.  The same legal standards and proof paradigms apply.

The plaintiff alleged that her supervisor, another female, treated her less favorably than similarly situated male employees.  She claimed that her supervisor assigned her a larger workload, held her to higher job performance standards, and gave her lower performance reviews, all of which led to the termination of her employment.  The defendant argued that the male employees were not similarly situated to the plaintiff because their job grade levels were lower than the plaintiff's job grade level.  While differences in employees' job grade levels factor into the similarly situated analysis, they are not dispositive.  Employees who have different job grade levels or different levels of seniority may still be considered valid comparators for purposes of disparate treatment based on a variety of other individualized factors.  The appellate court therefore reversed the trial court's finding that the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination as a matter of law.  The appellate court also found that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of pretext to withstand summary judgment.  The plaintiff had received consistently favorable job performance reviews for 12 consecutive years, until her performance rating was downgraded by her new supervisor.  The abrupt change in the appraisal of the plaintiff's performance, inconsistent with over a decade of favorable performance appraisals, raised doubts about the sincerity and intent behind the negative review, from which pretext could be inferred.  The defendant argued that only the plaintiff's performance record for the time-period immediately preceding her termination should be considered.  However, an employee's positive job performance history and previous work record are relevant to pretext analysis.  An inference of bias and pretext could also be inferred from the evidence that the supervisor rated both of her female subordinates unfavorably, but rated both of her male subordinates favorably.  Implausibilities and contradictions in the supervisor's criticism of the plaintiff's people management skills, for a time-period after the supervisor had already removed her people management responsibilities, further demonstrated pretext.  Lastly, the evidence that the supervisor assigned the plaintiff an extra workload that required an additional 30-35 hours of work per week supports a reasonable conclusion that the supervisor did so to set her up for failure.  Finding a host of triable issues of fact involving disparate treatment and pretext, the appellate court reversed the trial court's entry of summary judgment on the plaintiff's employment discrimination claims.