On June 15, 2018, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of the district court which entered summary judgment in favor of a defendant employer in a Title VII lawsuit in which the plaintiff employee alleged that she was subjected to unlawful retaliation for filing a prior employment discrimination lawsuit. Flanagan v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, No. 16-1927 (7th Cir. 6/15/2018). The plaintiff alleged that two coworkers threatened her life because she had previously sued their shared employer for employment discrimination and retaliation. She filed a new lawsuit under Title VII claiming illegal retaliation based on an alleged hostile work environment in connection with the alleged threats. The 7th Circuit ruled that the alleged threats were too oblique for a jury to conclude that the plaintiff was subjected to severe or pervasive harassment.
Claims for retaliatory harassment are cognizable under the law. To prove a retaliatory hostile work environment, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) her work environment was both objectively and subjectively offensive; (2) the harassment was in retaliation for protected activity; (3) the conduct was severe or pervasive; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability. The 7th Circuit concluded that a reasonable jury could not find that the plaintiff was subjected to a hostile work environment. Although the plaintiff alleged that her coworker created a hostile work environment when she overheard him say “do it to her when she gets out the door,” the alleged threat was too oblique to be considered severe; it was not clear whom he was asking to do what and to who. Moreover, the plaintiff walked away unharmed, casting doubt on whether she was ever in danger at all. One threat does not necessarily rise to the level of a hostile work environment.