7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Race Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

On August 31, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer in a federal lawsuit in which the plaintiff, a tenured university professor, alleged that the university discriminated against him because of his race, retaliated against him for complaining about discrimination, denied him due process of law, defamed him, and breached an employment contract created by an employee handbook.  Grant v. Trustees of Indiana University, et al., No. 16-1958 (7th Cir. 8/31/2017).  The question on summary judgment is whether the defendants have shown that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  On appeal, the appellate court resolves all factual disputes and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.  However, he is only entitled to the benefit of inferences supported by admissible evidence, not those supported only by speculation or conjecture.

The 7th Circuit stated that as the "put up or shut up" moment in a lawsuit, summary judgment requires the non-moving party to respond to the moving party's motion by identifying specific, admissible evidence showing that there is a genuine dispute of material fact for trial.  A genuine issue of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment exists when there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party to permit a trier of fact to make a finding for the non-moving party on any issue for which he bears the burden of proof.  The plaintiff in this case did not meet that burden.  He failed to cite admissible evidence of discrimination or retaliation.  He argued that one person had a discriminatory motive that he imputed on the actual decision-maker to influence her decision to terminate his employment.  This is the so-called "cat's paw" theory of liability in employment discrimination cases.  Under the "cat's paw" theory of liability, when a biased subordinate who lacks decision-making authority uses a formal decision-maker as a dupe in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action, the biased subordinate's actions constitute evidence of discrimination.  But this theory requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the subordinate actually harbored a discriminatory animus against him, which he has not done.  His conclusory, self-serving statements were not enough without specific evidence.  He also failed to show that the subordinate's input was a proximate cause of his employment termination.  Thus, his "cat's paw" theory failed.  The plaintiff also argued that the defendant's stated reasons for his termination were just pretext for employment discrimination.  However, he offered no admissible evidence that the defendant's proffered nondiscriminatory reasons were a lie to mask unlawful discrimination.  When it comes to pretext, the question is not whether the employer's stated reason was inaccurate or unfair, but whether the employer honestly believed the reason it has offered for the adverse employment action.  The court is not a "super personnel department that second-guesses employers' business judgments."  The plaintiff offered no evidence that the decision-maker did not honestly believe the reasons for his termination.  Thus, the district court properly granted summary judgment on the plaintiff's discrimination and retaliation claims.