On July 13, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer in a lawsuit in which the plaintiffs alleged that they were denied promotion in retaliation for their protected activity of opposing race discrimination, in violation of Title VII. Burks, et al. v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, No. 14-2707 (7th Cir. July 13, 2015). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits an employer from taking tangible, materially adverse employment action against an employee in retaliation for his or her statutorily protected activity of opposing an unlawful employment practice. Voicing opposition to or complaining about employment discrimination based on race constitutes protected activity. The failure to promote an employee constitutes adverse employment action. An employee may prove a claim for retaliatory failure-to-promote through the direct or indirect method of proof.
Title VII (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended)
On June 6, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII race discrimination case. Miller v. St. Joseph County, et al., No. 14-2989 (7th Cir. June 9, 2015). The plaintiff alleged that he was denied various promotions on account of his race, black. The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiff failed to present any evidence that the promotion denials had anything to do with his race. There was also no evidence that he would have gotten one of the promotions if he were white rather than black. Therefore, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment. What is noteworthy about this opinion, though, is that the 7th Circuit announced a restatement of the method and burden of proof to defeat a motion for summary judgment in an employment discrimination case.
On June 1, 2015, the United States Supreme Court held that the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch violated Title VII by failing to hire a job applicant due to her religious practice of wearing a hijab (a Muslim headscarf). Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. __ (2015). Denial of employment is unlawful if the job applicant's need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer's decision to not hire her. An employer's actual knowledge of the need is not required. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits discrimination based on a variety of protected characteristics, including religion. For purposes of a Title VII employment discrimination claim, religion includes a religious practice, observance or belief. Title VII makes it unlawful for a prospective employer to refuse to hire a job applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship, even if the applicant has not informed the prospective employer of the need for the accommodation.
On May 13, 2015, the 7th Circuit reversed the district court's entry of summary judgment on a Title VII retaliatory discharge claim. Castro, et al. v. DeVry University, Inc., No. 13-1934 (7th Cir. 2015). The plaintiff alleged that the defendant discharged him in retaliation for complaining to its Human Resources Department about racially and ethnically offensive remarks made by his manager. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, makes it unlawful for an employer to take adverse employment action against an employee in retaliation for complaining about an unlawful employment practice. This sort of complaining is referred to as protected activity. To prove a retaliatory discharge case, a plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) protected activity; (2) adverse job action; and (3) a causal relationship between the two. A variety of circumstantial evidence may support a retaliatory discharge claim.
On April 29, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must try to conciliate with an employer before suing the employer for unlawful employment practices. Mach Mining v. EEOC, 575 U.S. __ (2015). The EEOC may fulfill this precondition by providing the employer with notice of the allegations against it and an opportunity to cure the alleged violations of employment law. The Supreme Court also ruled that the issue of whether conciliation was attempted is subject to judicial review.
On March 24, 2015, the 7th Circuit reversed summary judgment in a Title VII race discrimination case. Hutchens v. Chicago Board of Education, et al., No. 13-3648 (7th Cir.). The case involved a large-scale layoff and reorganization. The plaintiff alleged that she was laid off while a less qualified white employee was selected for retention instead of her because of her race (black). There was only one open position. The district court accepted the defendant's explanation for its selection as a non-pretextual justification. The 7th Circuit, however, stated that there was considerable doubt about the honesty of the main witnesses for the defense as well as an absence of any corroborating documentary evidence.
On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, 575 U.S. __ (2015), in which it interpreted the second clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in a manner that expands the rights of pregnant employees to workplace accommodation. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA") is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which extends Title VII's protection against sex discrimination to pregnant employees, making it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on pregnancy, child-birth, or related medical conditions. The second clause of the PDA requires employers to treat female employees affected by pregnancy the same, for all employment-related purposes, as non-pregnant employees, who are similar in their ability or inability to work. The issue in Young was whether an employment policy that provided disability accommodation for some but not all categories of non-pregnant employees violated the PDA by denying disability accommodation to pregnant employees.
On March 11, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII employment discrimination and Section 1981 lawsuit. Simpson v. Beaver Dam Community Hospitals, Inc., No. 14-2269 (7th Cir., March 11, 2015). The 7th Circuit stated that although questions have been raised about the utility of analyzing discrimination claims through both the direct and indirect methods of proof, both tests still stand and are to be considered separately (despite the typically overlapping evidence). The ultimate question is whether a reasonable jury could find unlawful discrimination. Terms commonly used by human resources to justify employment terminations, such as 'not the right fit,' 'better fit elsewhere,' and 'not a good fit,' do not amount to direct evidence of discriminatory intent, unless there is a connection between the term and a protected class or an inherently discriminatory context.
On March 9, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a general contractor defendant on the basis that the plaintiff, who was employed by its subcontractor, failed to demonstrate that the general contractor was his indirect employer for purposes of Title VII liability. Love v. JP Cullen & Sons, No. 13-3291 (7th Cir., 3-9-2015). The plaintiff brought a Title VII action alleging that his dismissal from a construction job site was racially motivated. Since the general contractor was not his direct employer, the plaintiff was required to show that the general contractor could still be held liable under Title VII as an indirect employer. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to discharge or otherwise discriminate against any individual because of the individual's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. An employer is defined under Title VII as a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year, and any agent of such a person.
On February 6, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's entry of summary judgment dismissing a Title VII retaliation case. Ledbetter v. Good Samaritan Ministries, et al., No. 14-2822 (7th Cir., 2-6-2015). This opinion is about suspicious timing and too many loose ends. Instead of firing the plaintiff the day of the alleged termination meeting (before they learned of his EEOC charge), the decision-makers "dawdled." The dawdling of the decision-makers created an inference that they fired him the day after they learned of his EEOC charge because the charge was the "last straw." It is possible that if he had not filed his charge, he would have remained employed and, therefore, his termination was, at least in part, in retaliation for his charge. Even if they had already made a tentative decision to terminate the plaintiff, but did not execute it until they received notice of the charge, the lawsuit still should not have been dismissed, as the charge may have triggered the firing.