On August 22, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer in a Title VII retaliation lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her former employer terminated her employment in retaliation for her complaints of sexual harassment. Rozumalski v. W.F. Baird & Associates, Ltd., No. 18-3586 (7th Cir. 8/22/2019). In this case it was undisputed that the plaintiff was sexually harassed by her direct supervisor. It was also undisputed that when she reported the sexual harassment to the employer, the employer promptly investigated and terminated the alleged harasser. At issue was whether the employer terminated the plaintiff in retaliation for her role in the alleged harasser’s termination. The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court, that no reasonable jury could find in favor of the plaintiff on her retaliation claims, stating that “while it may be possible for workplace harassment to haunt a victim’s ability to succeed long after the incident, the facts that [the plaintiff] has presented do not support a finding of retaliation.”
The issue on appeal was whether there was sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to find that: (1) the plaintiff engaged in protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal connection between the two. Circumstantial evidence may establish the required causal connection. Relevant circumstantial evidence in a retaliation case may include suspicious timing, ambiguous statements of animus, evidence of disparate treatment, or evidence that the employer’s proffered reason for the adverse employment action was pretextual. The key question is whether a reasonable juror could conclude that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. The burden-shifting framework from McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green may be used as a method of proof to establish a Title VII retaliation claim. A plaintiff may do so by showing that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) she performed her job according to her employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) despite her satisfactory job performance, the employer took an adverse job action against her; and (4) she was treated less favorably than similarly situated employees who did not engage in protected activity. If the plaintiff establishes these elements, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action. If it does so, the burden of production returns to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s proffered reason is pretext for retaliation. The ultimate burden of proof is at all times on the plaintiff in Title VII discrimination, retaliation, and sexual harassment claims.
The plaintiff encountered an insurmountable problem with timing. Negative performance feedback that she received predated any of her complaints of sexual harassment. By the time any decision-maker learned of her complaints, there were already four months of documented performance issues on her record that supported the employer’s legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for her termination. Whether a proffered reason is unfair, wrong, or unreasonable is not relevant to pretext analysis. An inquiry into pretext requires an evaluation of the honesty of the employer’s explanation, not its validity or reasonableness. The plaintiff’s admission that the employer honestly believed that her job performance was deficient was fatal to her retaliation claim.