On June 13, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer in a Title VII retaliation case in which the plaintiff-employee alleged that he was constructively discharged in retaliation for complaining about a racially charged employment incident. Mollet v. City of Greenfield, No. 18-3685 (7th Cir. June 13, 2019). The question in every retaliation case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) is whether the statutorily protected activity was the “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action. In this case, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that it wasn’t. Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for complaining about discrimination. The plaintiff, a firefighter, argued that the defendant fire department retaliated against him for complaining about a discriminatory incident involving a co-worker. To establish a retaliation claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) he engaged in protected activity; (2) his employer took a materially adverse employment action against him; and (3) there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse job action.
The district court found that the plaintiff met his burden of proof on the first two elements, but failed to provide evidence that would lead a reasonable jury to find the required causal connection. A Title VII retaliation plaintiff must prove that the protected activity was the “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action, i.e., that the adverse action would not have happened without the protected activity. The question is not whether the protected activity was a but-for cause of the adverse job action, rather whether the protected activity was the but-for cause of the adverse action. In other words, would the plaintiff have been constructively discharged if he did not complain about the incident. Problematic for the plaintiff’s retaliation claim was the fact that several of the intolerable working conditions upon which he based his constructive discharge theory preceded his protected activity. Thus, there was no evidence presented by the plaintiff that could lead a reasonable juror to conclude that but-for the plaintiff complaining about the incident, the intolerable working conditions would not have occurred. Because a reasonable jury could not find the causation required for a Title VII retaliation case, the plaintiff’s retaliation claim failed.