By Kimberly Shen (Summer Fellow) and Timothy M. Rusche

Seyfarth Synopsis: On May 31, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in the employer’s favor on Title VII race discrimination and work retaliation claims filed by a Black dental assistant. In rejecting the plaintiff’s claims, the Court highlights the importance of documenting employee performance issues in order to avoid the appearance of discriminatory intent.

Picture this: An employee who is a member of a protected class receives a negative performance review and later files suit against his/her employer, alleging discrimination. Meanwhile, the employer claims that the negative review was justified due to poor job performance.

Sadly, such conflicts are not uncommon in the world of labor and employment, leaving many employers with the question: What factors help influence the outcomes of such cases?

A recent case from the U.S.  Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit helped shed some light on this question.

Case Background

In Abebe v. Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, Lily Abebe, a Black woman of Ethiopian descent, started her employment in 2014 as a dental assistant at the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, also known as Eskenazi Health.

Throughout her employment, Abebe amassed a record that showed a history of behavior problems. For example, in her 2016 performance review, the clinic manager gave her a low score in a category called “respect,” citing her negative attitude and poor interactions with coworkers.

Meanwhile, in her 2017 performance review, Abebe was disciplined after she had an argument with a coworker, and Abebe received a negative performance review in the category of “professionalism.” The review stated that “when she gets upset, her attitude turns shocking.” That same review also highlighted Abebe’s consistent interpersonal difficulties with coworkers, noting that “many of Lily’s coworkers [see] her as unapproachable.”

In 2018, Abebe received another negative performance review that cited her problems with teamwork and communication. Given her persistent history of negative reviews, Abebe was denied a merit-based raise. Abebe then filed a Charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging race and national origin based discrimination. Abebe thereafter, claimed that she was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan shortly after her contact with EEOC. Abebe sued Eskenazi Health, alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

The Court’s Decision

A district court granted summary judgment in Eskenazi Health’s favor, and Abebe appealed the decision. After hearing her case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. The Court held that Abebe failed to identify a proper comparator to support her allegations of discrimination, because she did not identify a similarly disrespectful employee outside her protected class who was treated more favorably. The Court also ruled against Abebe’s retaliation claim, holding that Abebe failed to establish a causal connection between her contact with the EEOC and the issuance of the Performance Improvement Plan.

Implications for Employers

Abebe v. Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County is only one of many cases amidst a growing landscape of increased discrimination and retaliation claims in the labor and employment legal field. From a legal perspective, this ruling demonstrates that employment discrimination cases are often entangled in complex considerations, which have led courts to look for factors such as a proper comparator supporting an employee’s allegations of discrimination when deciding whether or not to grant summary judgment. Thus, in light of such cases, employers should clearly and consistently document performance issues to prevent even the appearance of discriminatory intent behind corrective job actions.

If you have any questions regarding this case, please contact the authors, a member of Seyfarth’s Employment Litigation Team or your Seyfarth attorney.