On June 19, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant employer in a Title VII lawsuit in which the plaintiff, an elementary school principal, alleged that her employment contract was not renewed because of her race and in retaliation for her protected activity. Ferrill v. Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District, et al., No. 15-3805 (7th Cir. June 19, 2017). The plaintiff sued the School Board alleging racial discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). The 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff was not meeting the Board’s legitimate performance expectations and therefore failed to establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination. The retaliation claim failed for lack of evidence of a causal connection between the Board’s decision and any protected activity.
In this case, the school Superintendent recommended that the Board opt out of the plaintiff’s employment contract rollover. The Board accepted the recommendation. A week later the plaintiff sent a letter to the Board taking issue with her performance review plan and raising various racial issues. She was placed on paid administrative leave of absence while her allegations were investigated. She took a position with another school, which the Board construed as a resignation. She sued the school district and the Board. Her lawsuit alleged claims of racial discrimination in violation of Title VII arising from the Board’s decision to place her on administrative leave and opting out of her employment contract rollover. She also alleged retaliation claims under Title VII based on the same two adverse employment actions. At the summary judgment stage, the appropriate analysis is whether the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the plaintiff’s race, ethnicity, sex, religion or other prohibited factor caused the plaintiff’s employment termination or other adverse job action. Under the burden-shifting method of proof, the plaintiff must first show that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she performed her job to her employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) one or more similarly situated individuals outside of her protected class were treated more favorably by the employer. If the plaintiff makes this initial showing, the burden shifts to the employer to come forward with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged employment action. If the employer does so, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish pretext. Pretext is more than a mistake; it means a phony reason to cover the actual unlawful reason for the employment decision. The undisputed evidence in this case established that the Board decided to stop the plaintiff’s contract rollover because of documented performance issues. Therefore, a reasonable jury could not conclude that the Board took this action because of her race. The plaintiff’s retaliation claim also failed. A retaliation claim arises when an employee engages in protected activity and suffers a materially adverse employment action as a result. Protected activity includes some step in opposition to employment discrimination or other unlawful employment practice. It is not necessary that the employee opposed a practice that is actually prohibited by Title VII; the employee only has to have a good-faith and reasonable belief that she is opposing unlawful conduct. The plaintiff’s retaliation claim failed for lack of evidence of causation. To prevail on a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must prove that the retaliatory motivation of the employer or decision-maker was the but-for cause of the employment action in question. The 7th Circuit concluded that the evidence established beyond dispute that the Superintendent’s recommendation that the Board opt out of the contract rollover was motivated by the plaintiff’s performance issues, that were confirmed by an independent consultant, and not due to a retaliatory motivation.