On June 12, 2014, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on Title VII reverse discrimination failure-to-promote claims. Garofalo and Peers v. Village of Hazel Crest, Nos. 12-1668 & 12-1681 (7th Cir.) June 12, 2014. The 7th Circuit reiterated its simplified summary judgment standard for employment discrimination claims--whether a reasonable jury could find prohibited discrimination. Under the direct method of proof, a plaintiff can survive summary judgment by producing either circumstantial or direct evidence that creates a triable issue on whether discrimination motivated the adverse employment action. To establish a Title VII failure-to-promote claim under the indirect method, a plaintiff must offer evidence that: (1) he or she is a member of a protected class; (2) he or she was qualified for the position sought; (3) he or she was rejected for the position; and (4) the employer promoted someone outside of the protected class who was not better qualified. However, in a case alleging reverse discrimination, a plaintiff must also show background circumstances suggesting that the employer discriminates against the majority.
U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit
On June 6, 2014, the 7th Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment on Title VII and Section 1981 race discrimination failure-to-hire claims. Whitfield v. International Truck and Engine Corp., No. 13-1876 (June 6, 2014). Stating that the same evidentiary standards apply to Title VII and Section 1981 claims, the 7th Circuit applied the direct and indirect methods of proof for employment discrimination. Direct or circumstantial evidence may be used under the direct method. Direct evidence is rare. A "mosaic" of circumstantial evidence, from which intentional discrimination may be inferred, works under the direct method. The mosaic must point to the discriminatory reason for the employer's action and directly relate to the employment decision. Remarks and other circumstantial evidence that reflect a propensity by the decision-maker to evaluate a job-candidate based on illegal criterion is enough under the direct method, even if the evidence "stops short of a virtual admission of illegality."
The 7th Circuit applies a modified McDonnell Douglass test to reverse discrimination claims. Under McDonnell Douglass, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was meeting his employer's legitimate expectations; (3) he suffered an adverse job action; and (4) similarly situated individuals were treated more favorably than he was. However, when the plaintiff is a member of a "majority" (such as a male plaintiff alleging gender discrimination), he is required to establish "background circumstances" that demonstrate that the employer discriminates against the majority, or that there is something "fishy" going on. Farr v. St. Francis Hospital, 570 F.3d 829, 833 (7th Cir. 2009).
On May 28, 2014, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in an Americans with Disabilities Act case, in which the plaintiff alleged failure-to-accommodate and disparate treatment. Bunn v. Khoury Enterprises, Inc., No. 13-2292 (May 28, 2014). The opinion states the elements and methods of proof for ADA failure-to-accommodate and disparate treatment claims. The ADA provides that a covered employer shall not discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. Discrimination includes not making reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation its business. The 7th Circuit has established a three-part test for failure-to-accommodate claims: (1) the employee is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the employer is aware of the employee's disability; and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate the disability.
On May 2, 2014, the 7th Circuit held that an employer who grants an employee a leave of absence for some time under the Family and Medical Leave Act is estopped from subsequently claiming that the employee was not entitled to the FMLA leave. Holder v. Illinois Department of Corrections, No. 12-1456 (May 2, 2014). In its decision, the 7th Circuit stated that to establish a claim under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an employee must show: (1) he was eligible for FMLA protection; (2) his employer is covered by the FMLA; (3) he was entitled to take leave under the FMLA; (4) he provided sufficient notice of his intent to take leave to his employer; and (5) his employer denied him FMLA benefits to which he was entitled.
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.
On April 25, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment in an age discrimination case. Baker v. Macon Resources, Inc., No. 13-3324 (April 25, 2014). The Seventh Circuit found that the employer treated a younger employee more leniently than the plaintiff for the same policy violation. In an ADEA disparate discipline case, the inquiry is whether a younger employee engaged in similar misconduct but received lighter punishment. The Seventh Circuit rejected the employer's proffered reason as pretext. The Seventh Circuit stated that pretext may be inferred from inaccuracies or inconsistencies in an employer's proffered reason as well as selective enforcement of a disciplinary policy. In Baker, the proffered reason--an attempt to distinguish the plaintiff from the younger employee--was inconsistent with the employer's own policy, which it had selectively enforced. Therefore, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the pretext evidence could lead a jury to reasonably believe that age is the true reason the employer fired the plaintiff but retained the younger employee after both violated the same company rule.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed summary judgment on Title VII race and retaliation employment termination claims in Gosey v. Aurora Medical Center, No. 13-3375 (April 11, 2014). In Gosey, the defendant's sole proffered reason for the termination was alleged chronic tardiness on the part of the plaintiff, in violation of the defendant's employee handbook punctuality policy. However, a former chief officer of defendant testified that there was a workplace custom and practice of allowing employees a 7-minute grace-period within which to arrive. Defendant's time-records showed that the plaintiff arrived within the grace-period on all but one of the occasions upon which the defendant based its termination decision. The Seventh Circuit found that there were genuine issues of material fact surrounding the time-records and the defendant's attendance policy that precluded summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit stated that the existence of a uniform practice or policy that is in doubt cannot serve as a reason for an employment termination. Therefore, a rational jury could conclude that the defendant took the adverse job action on account of the plaintiff's protected class, and not for any non-invidious reason.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment on Illinois state common law retaliatory discharge claims for insufficient evidence of causation. Reid, et al. v. Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, No. 13-1768 (7th Cir.) April 1, 2014. Although the plaintiffs had engaged in protected activity shortly before their termination, they had been making the protected complaints occasionally for six months, and the complaints had not escalated prior to the termination. Moreover, the termination was immediately preceded by an intervening event--policy violations--that prompted the termination. Other employees who made the same protected complaints were not terminated; and one employee who did not make any protected complaint was also terminated for the same policy violations. The Seventh Circuit concluded that in view of the record as a whole, the evidence did not permit a reasonable inference of retaliatory intent.
On March 26, 2014, the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in a Title VII gender discrimination case. Bass v. Joliet Public School District No. 86, No. 13-1742 (March 26, 2014). The Defendant established that it terminated the Plaintiff for job abandonment since she failed to return to work after exceeding all of her available leave time. The Plaintiff claimed that she was terminated because of her sex, in violation of Title VII. The Seventh Circuit found that the Plaintiff failed to present any evidence of disparate treatment. Plaintiff's bare assertion that similarly situated males were treated differently, without any substantiation or names, was insufficient to raise any issue of fact. Moreover, three similarly situated male employees were terminated for the same reason.