Friday, April 22, 2016

DuPage County Sheriff Defeats Title VII Employment Discrimination Lawsuit

Recently, in Susan Kuttner v. John Zaruba, et al. the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer.  Plaintiff, Susan Kuttner was fired from her job as a DuPage County deputy sheriff after her employer learned that she had wore her uniform and badge while trying to collect on a loan for her boyfriend in violation of multiple departmental regulations.  In discipline proceedings, Kuttner ultimately admitted to violating two work rules: 1) one prohibiting “conduct unbecoming” an officer, and 2) another prohibiting the improper wearing of the uniform. The Merit Commission determined that Kuttner’s conduct was serious enough to warrant discharge.  She was fired on February 24, 2010.

Two weeks later, Kuttner filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that her employer had discriminated against her on the basis of sex.  After the EEOC declined action and gave her permission to sue in federal court, Kuttner filed suit against Sheriff John Zaruba claiming sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Specifically, Kuttner alleged in her federal lawsuit that she was fired and denied a promotion because of her sex. 

Kuttner lacked any direct evidence of discrimination. As a result, she sought to prove her claim under an indirect method of proof allowed by the federal courts in employment discrimination cases. Here, Kuttner argued that four male co-workers committed similar misconduct, but suffered less drastic employment consequences. Kuttner contended that these four “male comparators” also abused their positions but were not fired.  Sheriff Zaruba moved for summary judgment in the District Court on the ground that plaintiff failed to produce any evidence to prove her case. 

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court’s rejection of all four proffered comparators because their misconduct was too dissimilar to make them suitable for comparison under the McDonnell Douglas indirect method of proof of discrimination. Kuttner offered no other evidence of discrimination despite protracted discovery before summary judgment.  The Seventh Court also rejected Kuttner’s failure-to-promote claim because she never sought a promotion, nor had she alleged that a less qualified male employee was promoted over her.  

This decision is yet another example of how the federal courts hold plaintiffs to strict burdens of proof in employment discrimination cases. In cases like this, where there exists no evidence to back up a claim, it will be thrown out of court.  The decision also reminds employers of the importance of consistent discipline of employees and the need for proper documentation every step of the way.