On November 29, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in a retaliatory discharge and sexual harassment case in which the jury awarded a terminated employee $250,000 in punitive damages and $57,000 in compensatory damages. Gracia v. Sigmatron International, Inc., No. 15-3311 (7th Cir. 11/29/2016). The plaintiff sued her former employer for sexual harassment and for terminating her in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. The jury found in favor of the employer on the sexual harassment claim, but returned a verdict for the employee on the retaliation claim. The employee was an assembly line worker who was promoted several times and achieved the position of an assembly supervisor. She reported to Human Resources that her supervisor was sexually harassing her and filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging sex and national origin discrimination. Six weeks after her first complaint to HR about her supervisor’s sexual harassment and two weeks after the company received her EEOC Charge, the company terminated her employment.
The employee filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, alleging that she was subjected to sexual harassment and that the company terminated her employment in retaliation for complaining about it. To prevail on her retaliation claim, the employee was required to prove: (1) that she engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) that her employer took adverse employment action against her; and (3) that the protected activity and the adverse employment action are causally connected. On appeal, the company argued that the employee failed to prove that she was fired because she engaged in protected activity. The company claimed that instead, it terminated her employment because she had allowed an assembly line worker to use the wrong kind of solder on a circuit board. In a retaliatory discharge case, a retaliatory motive may be established through circumstantial evidence such as suspicious timing, ambiguous statements, evidence that the proffered reason for the termination was pretextual, and other evidence which may raise an inference of a retaliatory intent. The 7th Circuit concluded that the employee presented substantial evidence that she did not engage in the misconduct of which she was accused and that, even if she did, that conduct was not generally seen as a cause for termination at the company. The wrong solder was used regularly by other employees who were not fired, and no one had ever been fired for using the wrong solder. Based on this and other evidence as well as its own credibility assessments of the witnesses, the jury could reasonably conclude that the company’s explanation for the termination was a pretext. And, from that, the jury could consider the pretextual explanation itself as evidence of a retaliatory motive. The jury was free to infer that the company contrived a reason to hide its retaliatory purpose. The employee also provided circumstantial evidence of the company’s retaliatory motive through the suspicious timing between her protected activity and termination. Suspicious timing may raise an inference of a causal connection between the protected activity and adverse employment action, especially in conjunction with other evidence. Where there is corroborating evidence of a retaliatory motive, an interval of a few weeks or even months (between protected activity and termination) may establish the causal connection. In this case, the company terminated the employee only two weeks after it received her EEOC Charge. This suspicious timing, combined with the pretextual explanation for her termination, and evidence that similarly situated employees (who did not engage in protected activity) were treated differently, established a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to support the jury’s verdict.