Seventh Circuit Reinforces McDonnell Douglas Burden — Shifting Framework in Discrimination Cases

02 August 2011 Second City Bench Memo Publication

A recent decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reinforced the burden-shifting framework for establishing a prima facie case for employment discrimination based upon indirect evidence. In Luster v. Ill. Dept. of Corrections, No. 09-4066 (Decided on July 19, 2011), the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment to the defendant employer on plaintiff’s claim of racial discrimination.

In Luster, the defendant state correctional facility (“IDOC”) suspended the plaintiff correctional facility officer (“Luster”) “pending discharge” due to sexual harassment. Instead of formally appealing the suspension as provided for, Luster resigned and filed a charge of discrimination against IDOC. The district court granted IDOC’s motion for summary judgment because Luster did not provide evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to determine that IDOC’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action was false.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit first held that Luster did not establish a prima facie claim for discrimination because he did not present evidence showing that IDOC treated a similarly-situated employee more favorably.

Next, the Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s finding that Luster failed to provide evidence that IDOC’s legitimate reason for terminating him was pretext (as is required under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework). IDOC provided evidence that it terminated Luster because he sexually harassed another employee. The court rejected Luster’s argument that he “could prove pretext by ‘offering at least an inference’ that discrimination was the real reason for” IDOC’s actions. The court held that Luster’s alleged evidence of an inference of discrimination did not support a “reasonable inference” that IDOC’s asserted reason for termination was false. Further, the court refused to consider inadmissible hearsay as proof of pretext.

At the end of its opinion, the Seventh Circuit went out of its way to address Luster’s argument that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework is too onerous on the employee: “[t]he McDonnell Douglas framework is not perfect, but it remains the law of the land for handling cases without direct evidence of unlawful discrimination. It can be and has been adapted, as we have done in discriminatory discipline cases like this one. And we have often cautioned parties to avoid an unruly rigid barrier between direct and circumstantial evidence of discrimination, such as in our ‘convincing mosaic’ line of cases.” The court held that – on the facts before it – summary judgment had to be affirmed.

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