On April 14, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII gender discrimination case, in which a female deputy sheriff alleged that she was unlawfully discharged from employment on the basis of her gender. Kuttner v. Zaruba, et al., No. 14-3812 (7th Cir., 4/14/2016). On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the district court unduly restricted discovery and improperly granted summary judgment. The plaintiff allegedly was discharged for misconduct–wearing her official uniform and badge while trying to collect from someone who owed money to her boyfriend–in violation of departmental regulations. She filed a Charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that the sheriff had discriminated against her on the basis of her sex and, after she received a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC, she filed a federal lawsuit claiming sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Under the indirect method of proof, a Title VII plaintiff may establish an employment discrimination case with evidence of disparate treatment–that similarly situated co-workers were treated more favorably than her. These cases frequently involve a battle over whether the plaintiff’s proposed comparator employees are sufficiently similarly situated. Valid comparators are employees who dealt with the same supervisor, were subject to the same standards, and had engaged in similar conduct, without differentiating or mitigating circumstances that would distinguish their conduct or the employer’s treatment of them. In this case, the district court ruled that the plaintiff did not identify any similarly situated male employee who engaged in similar misconduct but received more favorable treatment. The misconduct of the proposed comparators wasn’t similar enough to the plaintiff’s to make them valid comparators. She did not present sufficiently analogous misconduct by the male officers to support an inference that she was treated more harshly because of her gender. Therefore, summary judgment was appropriate.