On March 17, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII lawsuit in which a university professor alleged that her supervisors took several retaliatory actions against her because of her protected activities of reporting a student’s complaint of sexual harassment against another professor and filing a charge of gender discrimination with the EEOC. Burton v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, et al., No. 16-2982 (7th Cir. 3/17/2017). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) makes it unlawful for an employer to take materially adverse employment action against an employee because he or she engaged in statutorily protected activity such as reporting or opposing sexual harassment or another unlawful employment practice. To succeed on a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must produce enough evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took a materially adverse job action against her; and (3) there was a “but-for” causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse job action.
Without direct evidence of causation, a plaintiff must present circumstantial evidence such as suspicious timing, ambiguous statements, disparate treatment, and any other evidence that would support an inference of retaliation. If the employer presents non-retaliatory reasons for the employment actions in question, the issue is whether the proffered reasons were pretext for retaliation. In this case, the timing between the last protected activity and adverse action was six months, without any evidence to bridge the time gap. A gap of six months does not preclude, but weakens a retaliation claim. There was also a factual basis for the adverse action in this case, as to which the plaintiff failed to provide evidence of pretext. Without sufficient evidence of pretext, she could not establish causation, and her retaliation claims failed.