In Title VII race discrimination case, Seventh Circuit provides helpful guidance to employers

In a recent opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, Illinois, affirmed the dismissal of an employee’s retaliation and hostile work environment claims. In Smith v. Illinois Department of Transportation, the plaintiff, an African-American, alleged that his employer allowed a racially-hostile work environment to persist and then retaliated against him because he complained about racial discrimination.

In support of his claims, Smith pointed to several instances of positive feedback from his supervisor. Cutting against his claims, however, were many unsatisfactory reviews of his performance and an “overwhelming number of documented problems – including serious safety issues[.]” No reasonable jury, the court found, could have found in Smith’s favor.

Smith also pointed to his supervisors’ use of profane and generally abusive language and even to the use, on one occasion, of a racially-charged slur. The general verbal harassment, however, was never tied to Smith’s race; and the use of the slur never “changed his subjective experience [in] the workplace,” which Title VII requires.

Takeaways for employers

While the opinion doesn’t break any new ground, it serves as a helpful reminder for employers about the benefits of regular and detailed recordkeeping and a thorough and meaningful performance evaluation process. All such documentation will be used to support an employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory justification for terminating an employee. Without it, and especially in this particular case with the use of a slur, the employer may not have been able to obtain summary judgment and dismissal of the claims without proceeding to trial.


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