7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Sexual Harassment, Retaliation and FMLA Claims

On October 2, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment on a former employee's sexual harassment, retaliation and FMLA claims.  King v. Ford Motor Company, No. 16-3391 (7th Cir. 10/2/2017).  The plaintiff, who was an assembly line worker, claimed that she was sexually harassed by a supervisor.  She was discharged after missing several weeks of work for medical reasons that her former employer claims she failed to properly document.  In her federal lawsuit, she filed claims for sexual harassment, FMLA interference, and retaliation based on her complaints of sexual harassment and for taking FMLA leave.  Since she failed to file suit within 90 days of receipt of her notice of right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, her Title VII sexual harassment claim was time-barred.  Her FMLA interference and retaliation claims failed too, for substantive reasons.

The plaintiff alleged that the company interfered with her right to take a leave of absence under the FMLA by terminating her employment.  However, she failed to provide sufficient evidence that she had worked enough hours to be eligible for FMLA leave.  The FMLA entitles certain eligible employees to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave of absence in a 12-month period.  To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the preceding 12-month period.  It is the employee's burden of proof to establish eligibility by providing evidence that he or she had worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months prior to the subject leave.  In this case, the plaintiff did not meet her burden and, therefore, her FMLA interference claim failed.  She also claimed that the company fired her in retaliation for exercising her rights under the FMLA and making internal complaints of sexual harassment.  To establish a claim of retaliation under the FMLA or Title VII, a plaintiff must plead and prove that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there is a causal connection between the two.  In this case, the plaintiff did not establish the required causal connection.  Her evidence of disparate treatment didn't work because her comparators were not similarly situated to her.  Her argument of suspicious timing between the protected activity and adverse job action failed because the time-gap of almost a year was too long and actually undermined her retaliation claims.  Finally, her pretext argument was also of no avail because she did not introduce evidence that the company's proffered reason for her employment termination--unauthorized absence without providing a satisfactory reason--was a pretext for unlawful retaliation, which requires a dishonest motivation and not merely a mistake or unfairness.