What is Required to Establish a Title VII Retaliation Claim?

On December 17, 2021, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer in a lawsuit for race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended ("Title VII") and the Illinois Human Rights Act ("IHRA").  Miller et al. v. Chicago Transit Authority, et al., No. 20-3005 (7th Cir. Dec. 17, 2021).  After being fired by the Chicago Transit Authority ("CTA"), the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging that they were terminated because of their race and in retaliation for complaining about discrimination.  The district court concluded that the racial discrimination claims failed because the undisputed evidence showed that the CTA had legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-pretextual reasons for terminating the plaintiffs.  On appeal, the 7th Circuit discussed the retaliation claims.

To establish a Title VII retaliation claim, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) her employer took a materially adverse job action against her; and (3) the adverse employment action was caused by the protected activity.  A complaint of discrimination is a protected activity only if the discrimination is based on a protected characteristic.  Complaining in general terms of discrimination or harassment, without connection to a protected class, is not protected activity.  The plaintiffs complained generally of being targeted and treated unfairly, but did not indicate that the treatment was based on race or any other protected classification.  Thus, the plaintiffs' retaliation claims failed for lack of protected activity.

Additionally, there was no evidence that the decision-maker knew of the plaintiffs' complaints.  There can be no retaliation claim without evidence that the decision-maker knew about the protected activity before she made the termination decision.  The plaintiffs' argument, that suspicious timing between their complaint and termination raised an inference of retaliation, was worthless since the decision-maker was unaware of their complaint.