Friday, March 11, 2016

Court Refuses to “Second-Guess” Employment Decisions in Title VII Retaliation Lawsuit

Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had occasion to examine whether the plaintiff met the required burden of proof in her federal lawsuit alleging employment discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting workplace discrimination.

In Boston v. U.S. Steel Corporation, the Seventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer.  The plaintiff, Carla Boston, worked at U.S. Steel for eighteen years before she was laid off in December 2008, along with a number of other employees.  While on lay off status, Boston remained eligible to bid on posted positions for which she was qualified.  Between September 2010 and January 2012, Boston was awarded, and eventually disqualified from, three different clerical positions.  On April 10, 2012, Boston filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging that she was laid off on January 10, 2012 in retaliation for an earlier EEOC discrimination charge she previously filed in October, 2010.

Boston filed a federal lawsuit alleging retaliation under Title VII.  Specifically, Boston argued that U.S. Steel retaliated against by her for filing an EEOC complaint, and that retaliation took the form of poor training and repeated disqualifications.  To establish a case of retaliation, Boston must demonstrate that: (1) she engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal connection between the two.  Retaliation may be proved by either direct or circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the protected conduct –her filing of the 2010 EEOC charge of discrimination- was a “substantial or motivating” factor in the defendant’s employment decision.

The Seventh Circuit found that Boston did not meet her burden of proving that her 2010 EEOC Charge of Discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor in her supervisor’s decision to disqualify her.  Notably, Boston failed to present any evidence that her supervisor even knew about the 2010 charge or decided to disqualify her based on that charge.  The Court further found that Boston failed to prove that U.S. Steel lacked a good faith basis to disqualify her relying on evidence in the record that Boston was struggling with the job, including her own admission in a voice mail message to her supervisor that she was trying to “figure this job out.”  In the absence of evidence of pretext or bad faith, the Seventh Circuit refused to “second-guess” U.S. Steel’s decision to disqualify Boston.