An Illinois jury recently returned a large verdict in a reverse discrimination lawsuit against the Springfield Urban League, in which the plaintiff alleged that her employment was terminated on account of her race, white, and because she refused to participate in workplace religious activities. The plaintiff was awarded $46,718 in back pay and lost benefits, $4,403 in litigation costs, and $160,222 in attorneys' fees. The plaintiff alleged that she was fired because she objected to prayer meetings at work organized by a supervisor, and alleged that members of the supervisor's congregation who worked at the Urban League were given preferential treatment. She also alleged that African-Americans and members of the congregation were hired over more qualified job candidates. The Urban League, which disagrees with the verdict, has filed post-trial motions objecting to the verdict on various legal grounds, and is expected to file an appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court.
Title VII (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended)
On October 21, 2015, the 7th Circuit reversed the dismissal of a Title VII lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her employer subjected her to a hostile work environment on account of her race and national origin and retaliated against her for complaining about that discrimination. Huri v. Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 12-2217 (7th Cir., 10/21/2015). The district court had dismissed the plaintiff's hostile work environment claims on the grounds that they were outside of the scope of the charges of discrimination that she filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The filing of an EEOC charge is an administrative prerequisite to the filing of a Title VII lawsuit for discrimination or retaliation. The purpose of an EEOC charge is to provide the EEOC and the employer with an opportunity to settle the employment dispute, and to put the employer on notice of the employee's claims. A federal lawsuit for a Title VII claim must be reasonably related to the allegations contained in the underlying EEOC charge. The lawsuit and charge must at least describe the same conduct and implicate the same individuals.
On October 20, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in a federal lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her former employer denied her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Barrett v. Illinois Department of Corrections, No. 13-2833 (7th Cir., 10-20-2015). The plaintiff was fired from her job due to accumulating a certain amount of unauthorized absences. She claimed that some of those absences were protected by the FMLA and, therefore, should not have been classified as unauthorized. She filed suit after she was fired, but more than two years after her requests for FMLA leave were denied. An FMLA lawsuit must be filed not later than two years after the date of the last event constituting the alleged violation for which the action is brought. The 7th Circuit held that the alleged FMLA violations occurred, and the limitations period began to run, when the employer denied the employee's requests for FMLA leave and classified the subject absences as unauthorized, not when she was fired years later as a result of her attendance record. Thus, the FMLA suit was time-barred.
On October 6, 2015, the 7th Circuit reversed an order of summary judgment on USERRA and ADA claims brought by a member of the armed services, who alleged that her employer unlawfully discharged her on the basis of her military service and disability, PTSD. Arroyo v. Volvo Group North America, LLC, No. 14-3618 (7th Cir. 10/6/2015). The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) prohibits discrimination against members of the armed services. It provides that a person who is a member of a uniformed service shall not be denied retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment by an employer on the basis of that membership. The Act also provides that discrimination exists where an employee's armed service membership was a motivating factor in the adverse employment action, unless the employer can prove that it would have taken the same adverse action in the absence of such membership. If a plaintiff makes out a prima facie case by showing that her membership was a motivating factor, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to prove that it would have taken the same action regardless. The motivating factor standard can be satisfied with circumstantial evidence.
On September 23, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a reverse discrimination case, in which a Caucasian professor alleged that a university failed to hire him for an open tenure-track assistant professor position because of his race. Rahn v. Board of Trustees of Northern Illinois University, No. 14-2402 (7th Cir., 9-23-2015). He alleged that the dean of the college had stated that he would not hire a white man into the department if qualified minority candidates were available. He also claimed that the metric used by the search committee to rank the candidates for the position was designed to eliminate him from consideration. After the professor did not make the final cut of candidates, the dean selected a non-Caucasian candidate for the position from the final group.
On September 23, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed a judgment in favor of the defendant employer that was entered after a jury trial of an employee's Title VII employment discrimination case. Boutros v. Avis Rent A Car System, LLC, No. 14-1511 (7th Cir., 9-23-2015). The plaintiff employee, a courtesy bus driver at O'Hare International Airport, alleged that his employer unlawfully terminated his employment because of his race. The 7th Circuit clarified that the employee's claim was actually for discrimination based on his perceived national origin or religion, because he is an Assyrian Christian, who claimed that his supervisors perceived him as an Arab Muslim. The employer claimed that it terminated his employment for dishonesty and insubordination in connection with a work incident that he had reported, about which he had allegedly given inconsistent accounts. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the employer.
The Illinois Equal Pay Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees in terms of compensation on the basis of gender, has been amended, effective January 1, 2016, to cover all Illinois employers of any size. The Illinois Equal Pay Act makes it unlawful for an Illinois employer to pay an employee less than the employer pays to another employee of the opposite sex for the same or substantially similar work on jobs which require equal skill, effort and responsibility that are performed under similar work conditions. Prior to the amendment, the Act only applied to employers with four or more employees. The Act, which is administered and enforced by the Illinois Department of Labor, provides for civil penalties for each offense. There are exceptions, including any factor that would not constitute unlawful discrimination under the Illinois Human Rights Act.
The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has recently been re-introduced to both Houses of Congress. If enacted, the Act would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees. The accommodation requirement is intended to allow pregnant employees to continue working through pregnancy, if they wish, and to protect them from forced leave of absence or employment termination due to pregnancy. The Act would also make it unlawful for employers to deny employment opportunities to women based on the need for reasonable accommodation related to pregnancy or childbirth. The proposed pregnancy law appears to have support in both the House and the Senate and would more than likely be signed into law by the President.
On August 28, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in a sex discrimination lawsuit brought under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. Packer v. Trustees of Indiana University, No. 15-1095 (7th Cir. 8-28-2015). The plaintiff alleged that her employer subjected her to various adverse treatment and discharged her from employment because of her gender. She also claimed that she was a victim of gender-based pay discrimination and retaliation for making internal complaints of discrimination. The employer contended that it discharged her for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. There were not enough citations to specific portions of the record to counter the motion for summary judgment. For instance, the plaintiff did not identify any similarly situated male employees who were paid more than she was paid. Therefore, the court could not even reach the issue of whether there was justification for the pay disparity.
On August 25, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in a Title VII retaliation case in which a Caucasian Deputy alleged that his employer terminated him in retaliation for testifying on behalf of African-American Deputies in their race discrimination case. Harden v. Marion County Sheriff's Department, No. 14-1713 (7th Cir., 8-25-2015). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for testifying or participating in investigations of employment discrimination claims filed by other employees. The Deputy testified for his fellow Deputies in connection with an EEO investigation of their race discrimination claims. He alleged that after he testified, he was subjected to retaliation in the form of undesirable schedule changes and assignments as well as unfair discipline, for which he filed his own EEOC Charge.