In a recent decision in Smith v. Chicago Transit Authority, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld judgment against employee who sued in federal court. Smith alleged that the Chicago Transit Authority (“CTA”) fired him because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. The CTA said it fired Smith because he violated its policy against sexual harassment.
Smith held the position of Transportation Manager and was assigned to the Bus Services Management unit. The CTA has a policy, like most employers, prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, including “unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” when the conduct “has the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
On November 6, 2006, a bus operator, Marcella McCall reported that on October 28 Smith asked her to perform a striptease for his wife and to join him and his wife in a sexual relationship. He repeated the proposition the next day. In accordance with its policy, the CTA investigated the complaint and found that other female employees had experienced similar sexually inappropriate conduct in the workplace. Smith denied the misconduct and contended that Ms. McCall made up the sexual harassment story to cover for leaving work early on October 29. Based on its investigation, which included interviews of other female employees, the CTA found that Smith had violated the sexual-harassment policy. On January 24, 2007, the CTA fired Smith citing (among other reasons) the violation of the CTA’s sexual-harassment policy.
Smith filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging that he was fired because of his race. The EEOC investigated and issued a right to sue letter. Smith then filed a pro se complaint against the CTA in federal court. Following discovery, the CTA moved for summary judgment. Despite Smith’s belief that he had enough evidence to get to a jury, the court disagreed and granted the CTA’s motion.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling in favor of the employer. In the end, the Court found that plaintiff failed to present evidence that the CTA’s reasons for firing Smith were a pretext for race discrimination or that, as plaintiff contended, the CTA had investigation procedures that allowed white employees who committed similar infractions to receive more favorable treatment. The Court also rejected plaintiff's claim that he was entitled to a trial on his claim since the underlying allegations of sexual harassment were untrue.
This case decision reminds employers why they must have policies in place prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, and why all complaints need to be taken seriously, thoroughly investigated and well-documented. As this case illustrates, the employer had the evidence it needed to dispose of this lawsuit early on and avoid the expense and risk of exposure associated with jury trials in employment discrimination cases.