March 21, 2016 Practice Points

Racial Retaliation Claim Against U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chair Upheld

Martin Castro’s responsibility at the time was eradicating employment discrimination in Illinois.

By Carmen D. Caruso – March 21, 2016

Martin Castro, chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, is ordered to stand trial on allegations that he retaliated against an African American attorney who worked under his direction at the Illinois Human Rights Commission (IHRC), after she complained that one of her subordinate attorneys at the IHRC was the victim of race discrimination occurring within that state agency, which, ironically enough, is charged with the responsibility of eradicating employment discrimination in Illinois.

The plaintiff brought suit against Martin Castro, who was chair of the IHRC at the time, and the IHRC, alleging that she was subjected to retaliatory discharge in violation of the federal civil rights law, 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

In a written opinion on March 15, 2016, U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall denied defense motions for summary judgment on this claim, meaning that the case will now proceed to jury trial. Other counts in the complaint were dismissed, but as the plaintiff's counsel explained, “Plaintiffs only need to win once.”

The district court affirmed that “Section 1981 encompasses claims for retaliation.” CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries553 U.S. 442, 445, 128 S. Ct. 1951, 170 L.Ed.2d 864 (2008). In the context of laws governing employment rights, “unlawful retaliation occurs when an employer takes an adverse employment action against an employee for opposing impermissible discrimination.” Smith v. Bray681 F.3d 888, 896 (7th Cir. 2012). The substantive standards and methods of proof that apply to claims of racial discrimination and retaliation under Title VII also apply to claims under section 1981. See Humphries, 474 F.3d at 403–04.

The court analyzed Parker’s claim under the “direct method” of proof, which in the Seventh Circuit can be satisfied under the “mosaic” approach, whereby “evidence of retaliatory motive, evidence of ‘suspicious timing . . . can sometimes raise an inference of a causal connection’”—and “[w]hen an adverse employment action follows on the heels of a protected expression and the plaintiff can show the person who decided to impose the adverse action knew of the protected conduct, the causation element of the prima facie case is typically satisfied.” Lang v. Ill. Dep’t of Children and Family Servs., 361 F.3d 416, 419 (7th Cir. 2004). While mere temporal proximity, standing alone, would probably be insufficient, the evidence suggests more than just closeness in time.”

The Rule 56 opinion in Parker does not necessarily break new legal ground, but it does remind us of the importance of timeline evidence in retaliation cases, and it outlines an effective method of proof for employees at the managerial or professional level, who will typically have difficulty presenting an indirect-proof case under the McDonald Douglas formula due to the lack of similarly situated employees at his or her level.

The case, Harriet Parker v. Illinois Human Rights Commission, et al, No. 12 C 875, was discussed in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on March 15, 2016.

Keywords: litigation, civil rights, Section 1981, employment, discrimination

— Carmen D. Caruso, Section 1981 Subcommittee Chair, Carmen D. Caruso Law Firm, Chicago, IL

Carmen D. Caruso co-represents the plaintiff in this case.

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