On March 15, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in a Title VII lawsuit filed by a surgeon against Cook County Hospital, in which she alleged race, sex, and national origin discrimination, as well as retaliation and harassment. Liu v. Cook County, et al., No. 14-1775 (7th Cir., 3/15/2016). The plaintiff had worked as a general surgeon at Cook County Hospital for more than two decades before her surgical privileges were suspended and she was denied reappointment. She claimed that the hospital’s reasons for these and various other adverse actions against her were pretext for illegal discrimination and retaliation. The 7th Circuit held that the plaintiff presented insufficient evidence of any discriminatory animus based on her race, sex, or national origin, and, to the extent that she offered any such evidence, it was not connected to the adverse decisions. She also did not present enough evidence to establish a factual dispute on whether the proffered reasons were pretextual.
It is the plaintiff’s burden to prove that the employer’s proffered, non-discriminatory reason was contrived to hide employment discrimination. The issue is not whether the employer’s reason was inaccurate or unfair, but whether the employer honestly believed the reason it offered for the adverse employment action. Even if the employer’s decision was a mistake or the worst business decision in the world, pretext does not exist if the decision-maker honestly believed the non-discriminatory reason. A plaintiff may create a factual dispute on the issue of pretext by identifying weakness, implausibility, inconsistency, or contradiction in the employer’s rationale that would allow a reasonable jury to find the rationale unworthy of credence. In this case, the plaintiff failed to do so. Disagreements over medical techniques and the like do not translate into pretext.