On June 19, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant employer in a Title VII lawsuit in which the plaintiff, an elementary school principal, alleged that her employment contract was not renewed because of her race and in retaliation for her protected activity. Ferrill v. Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District, et al., No. 15-3805 (7th Cir. June 19, 2017). The plaintiff sued the School Board alleging racial discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). The 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff was not meeting the Board's legitimate performance expectations and therefore failed to establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination. The retaliation claim failed for lack of evidence of a causal connection between the Board's decision and any protected activity.
Title VII (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended)
On May 23, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, held that the non-renewal of an independent contractor's employment contract with the State of Illinois constitutes adverse job action for purposes of a retaliatory discharge claim under the State Ethics Act. Wynn v. Illinois Department of Human Services, 2017 IL App (1st) 160344 (May 23, 2017). In this case, a contract employee alleged that the state violated the Illinois Ethics Act by intentionally not renewing his independent contractor employment agreement in retaliation for his protected activity of reporting an alleged improper, unauthorized state expenditure to an auditor. After a one-day bench trial, the plaintiff was awarded $782,253.
On April 24, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer in a Title VII employment discrimination lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that the defendant failed to hire him as a truck driver because of his race, after his routine drug test was allegedly positive for marijuana use. Turner v. Hirschbach Motor Lines, No. 15-3263 (7th Cir. April 24, 2017). The plaintiff alleged that the decision to not hire him was racially discriminatory. However, he failed to offer evidence that the racial animus of an employee who was involved in the drug testing procedures, but was not a decision-maker on the hiring decision, caused the defendant to not hire him.
On April 4, 2017, the 7th Circuit held that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, No. 15-1720 (7th Cir. 4/4/2017) (rehearing en banc). This case was filed by an openly lesbian teacher who alleged that her employer failed to promote her or renew her contract on the basis of her sexual orientation. The district court dismissed her complaint on the ground that Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination does not include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. On appeal, in an earlier decision, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court, but later agreed to rehear the issue en banc. The 7th Circuit is the first federal appellate court to hold that sexual orientation discrimination is actionable under Title VII.
On April 3, 2017, the United States Supreme Court delivered an opinion in which it discussed the authority of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), to issue a subpoena to obtain evidence from an employer that is relevant to its investigation of a charge of employment discrimination. McLane Company, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 581 U.S. __ (2017). Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and provides the EEOC with enforcement authority. When a charge of discrimination is filed, the EEOC is required to notify the employer and conduct an investigation of the charge. It is authorized to issue, and seek enforcement from a district court, of a subpoena to obtain documents, data or witness testimony that is relevant to its investigation of the unlawful employment practices alleged in a charge.
On March 17, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII lawsuit in which a university professor alleged that her supervisors took several retaliatory actions against her because of her protected activities of reporting a student's complaint of sexual harassment against another professor and filing a charge of gender discrimination with the EEOC. Burton v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, et al., No. 16-2982 (7th Cir. 3/17/2017). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") makes it unlawful for an employer to take materially adverse employment action against an employee because he or she engaged in statutorily protected activity such as reporting or opposing sexual harassment or another unlawful employment practice. To succeed on a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must produce enough evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took a materially adverse job action against her; and (3) there was a "but-for" causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse job action.
On January 13, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a wage discrimination lawsuit in which the plaintiff claimed that she was denied a pay increase and subjected to disparate pay on the basis of her age, sex and race, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), and the Equal Pay Act ("EPA"). David v. Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 508, No. 15-2132 (7th Cir. 1/13/2017). She alleged that employees who were younger, non-African-American, or male were paid more than she was paid for equivalent work.
Here is a look back at 2016 7th Circuit employment law decisions, including significant trends and changes in employment law in the 7th Circuit, as well as a tally of decisions affirming and reversing summary judgments in employment law cases. Notably, in 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed orders of summary judgment in 22 employment law cases, but reversed orders of summary judgment in only 5 employment law cases (10 calendar days remain, so the numbers may change). But as of this date the ratio is 4.4/1, i.e., 4.4 summary judgments were affirmed for every 1 summary judgment that was reversed. Put another way, of the 27 employment law summary judgments on appeal to the 7th Circuit in 2016, 81.5% were affirmed, while 18.5% were reversed. The 27 cases include employment discrimination, harassment, failure-to-accommodate, and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Rehabilitation Act, Section 1981, the Illinois Human Rights Act, and Illinois common law.
On November 29, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in a retaliatory discharge and sexual harassment case in which the jury awarded a terminated employee $250,000 in punitive damages and $57,000 in compensatory damages. Gracia v. Sigmatron International, Inc., No. 15-3311 (7th Cir. 11/29/2016). The plaintiff sued her former employer for sexual harassment and for terminating her in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. The jury found in favor of the employer on the sexual harassment claim, but returned a verdict for the employee on the retaliation claim. The employee was an assembly line worker who was promoted several times and achieved the position of an assembly supervisor. She reported to Human Resources that her supervisor was sexually harassing her and filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging sex and national origin discrimination. Six weeks after her first complaint to HR about her supervisor's sexual harassment and two weeks after the company received her EEOC Charge, the company terminated her employment.
On November 22, 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District, reversed a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff after a jury trial on her employment discrimination claims under the Illinois Human Rights Act. Schnitker v. Springfield Urban League, Inc., 2016 IL App (4th) 150991 (11/22/2016). The plaintiff alleged that the defendant violated the Illinois Human Rights Act by failing to rehire her for a teaching position on account of her race (Caucasian) and religion (non-Pentecostal). She prevailed in a jury trial, at the conclusion of which she was awarded $100,000 in damages. The defendant appealed on the ground that the plaintiff's jury instructions inaccurately stated the law by not requiring the plaintiff to prove causation. The appellate court agreed.