What are the Elements of a Title VII Retaliation Claim?

On June 16, 2021, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant in a Title VII retaliation and sex discrimination lawsuit, in which the plaintiff alleged that the defendant refused to hire her twice, in retaliation for filing an earlier complaint of sex discrimination.  Eaton v. J.H. Findorff & Son, Inc., No. 20-1731 (7th Cir. June 16, 2021).  The plaintiff had filed a charge of discrimination against the company with the EEOC, alleging that her layoff amounted to unlawful discrimination on the basis of her sex.  Subsequently, she filed her federal lawsuit, claiming both sex discrimination and retaliation for previously complaining about sex discrimination.  Only the retaliation claim was at issue on appeal.  In order to establish a retaliation claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must demonstrate that:

(1) she engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) her employer took a materially adverse employment action against her; and (3) the protected activity and adverse job action are causally connected.  To prove causation, the plaintiff must demonstrate that "the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action."  There were no operator positions available when the company refused to hire the plaintiff.  Until any openings became available, she suffered no harm because there was no adverse job action.  Absent any evidence that she was denied an open position, her retaliation claim fails.  Additionally, the decision-makers did not know that her previous complaint was based on discrimination.  To demonstrate that a defendant was motivated to retaliate based on the plaintiff's protected activity, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant had actual knowledge of the protected activity.  It is not sufficient that a decision-maker could have or even should have known about the employee's complaint.  Thus, the 7th Circuit concluded that because the plaintiff "lacks any evidence that the decision-makers knew that she had engaged in protected activity, she has failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact in support of causation for her retaliation claim."