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7th Circuit affirms Plaintiff Failed to Show Adverse Employment Action - Recent Development in the Courts

In Chaib v. State of Indiana, 744 F.3d 974 (7th Cir. 2014), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed a claim of employment discrimination and retaliation. Nora Chaib ("Chaib"), a female U.S. citizen of French national origin, alleged that while working as a correctional officer for the Indiana Department of Corrections, she was subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment on the basis of gender and national origin. Chaib also claimed she was retaliated against when she complained of her co-worker's alleged harassment. Title VII forbids employers from retaliating against employees by taking adverse employment actions for complaining about prohibited discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Chaib started working for the defendant in 2008. She alleged that her training officer began to make sexually offensive remarks almost immediately after she started work. She identified three specific remarks. The training officer acknowledged a conversation in her presence and admitted making another comment, but denied addressing the comment to her. After the first remark, the plaintiff complained to her training officer, who then ceased training her. Chaib claimed the training officer continued to criticize her work and make disparaging remarks about her French heritage. However, the plaintiff did not bring the training officer's behavior to the attention of any supervisor at the Indiana Department of Corrections.

On May 11, 2009, she completed her probationary period and was granted permanent employee status. In July of 2010, the training officer yelled at her to do her job and pointed his finger in her face. Chaib then filed an internal personnel complaint with her supervisor referencing this incident and the other improper actions which plaintiff described as sexual harassment. After completion of the investigation of the plaintiff's complaints, her employer issued a written report which found no evidence to substantiate her claims of harassment. It did note that there was evidence that the training officer engaged in conduct unbecoming a corrections officer, and the plaintiff herself engaged in unbecoming behavior, such as referring to co-workers as "stupid Americans," threatening to file sexual harassment charges, and endangering others through negligent actions. The plaintiff and training officer received reprimands, after which the training officer ceased any harassing behavior.

Over the course of the next two and a half years, Chaib described a series of encounters with other co-workers as discriminatory. She reported these incidents, and she had no further problems with the co-workers involved in the incidents.

In 2010, plaintiff's annual review stated she was "not meeting expectations." Alleging that her poor performance evaluation was due to gender and national origin bias, she refused to sign it. In August 2010, plaintiff filed a complaint with the EEOC.

In April 2011, plaintiff was working in the "chow hall" when an inmate groped her. Following this episode, she requested time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). While still on FMLA leave, she tendered a two-week notice and resigned from her position. In October, 2011, she filed a second EEOC complaint expanding on her prior complaints.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that plaintiff's disparate treatment claims failed under both the direct and indirect methods of proof. Plaintiff's claim failed as she was unable to establish that she suffered an adverse employment action. She claimed three adverse actions taken by her employer as a result of alleged discrimination: (1) she was denied training; (2) her request to transfer to another prison was rejected, and (3) she received a poor evaluation. Plaintiff never complained to her employer about the lack of training, including when she complained of her training officer's conduct. As to plaintiff's alleged adverse employment action concerning the refusal to transfer her to another prison, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded there was no concrete evidence showing the terms and conditions of working at the other prison were superior. Finally, the court explicitly rejected poor performance reviews alone as sufficient to form the basis of an adverse employment action. Since plaintiff failed to identify an adverse employment action, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision to grant summary judgment on plaintiff's gender and national origin discrimination claims.

The Circuit Court also granted summary judgment to the employer on plaintiff's hostile work environment claim. To avoid summary judgment, a plaintiff must provide sufficient evidence of four elements: (1) the work environment was subjectively and objectively offensive, (2) plaintiff's gender or national origin caused the harassment; (3) the conduct was severe or pervasive; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.Chaib at985 (referencing Milligan v. Bd. of Trs. of S. Ill. Univ., 686 F. 3d 378, 383 (7th Cir. 2012).The alleged harassment came from co-workers. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals noted that "an employer is only liable for harassment from an employee's co-workers if it was negligent in its response to the harassment." Chaib at 985. In each instance where plaintiff reported the conduct of a co-worker, she had no subsequent problems with that individual. Accordingly, a reasonable jury could not conclude that the employer was negligent for failing to correct the co-worker's behavior.

Finally, the court concluded plaintiff did not have enough evidence to sustain her retaliation claim. Chaib engaged in a protected activity, namely, complaining to her employer about a co-worker's behavior. However, she was unable to offer any causal link between those complaints and the alleged adverse employment actions of failure to train, failure to transfer, and poor performance review. The court ruled that the plaintiff failed to carry her burden of proof, and summary judgment was properly granted.

© 2020 Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, P.CNational Law Review, Volume IV, Number 223

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