« Law - "Lawyers worry about liability if banks holding client trust accounts fail" | Main | Ind. Decisions - Court of Appeals issues 1 today (and 5 NFP) »

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit issues one Indiana opinion today

In Alshafi Tate v. Executive Management Services, Inc. (ND Ind., Judge Springmann), a 10-page opinion, Judge Williams writes:

Alshafi Tate, a former employee of Executive Management Services (“EMS”), claims that his supervisor, Dawn Burban, threatened to fire him if he refused to continue their sexual relationship. When Tate rejected her ultimatum, Burban instigated an altercation that led to his termination. Tate filed suit, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After a trial, the jury rejected Tate’s sexual harassment claim, but found in his favor on his retaliation claim. EMS appeals, arguing that Tate did not engage in protected conduct. EMS further maintains that Tate cannot prove that his termination was connected to his refusal to have sex with Burban because the decision to fire Tate was made pursuant to an independent investigation. Because Tate has not shown that he engaged in protected conduct, we reverse the district court’s decision. * * *

The jury returned a verdict in Tate’s favor on the retaliation claim and found against Tate on his sexual harassment claim. After trial, EMS renewed its motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) for judgment as a matter of law or in the alternative, a motion for a new trial, asserting: (1) Tate did not engage in any protected activity when he told his supervisor he would not continue to have sex with her to keep his job, and (2) EMS had no knowledge that Tate’s supervisor had a retaliatory motive for her actions, and EMS discharged Tate based on the report of Hudson, who was a disinterested witness.

The district court denied EMS’s post-trial motion. The court concluded that Tate had engaged in statutorily protected activity because “rebuffing sexual harassment can in some situations be considered opposition to an unlawful employment practice.” The district court also concluded that the trial record would permit a reasonable jury to hold EMS liable, stating “there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Scheumann was Burban’s rubber stamp and that Scheumann failed to conduct any independent investigation” of Tate’s claims insulated from the discriminatory animus. EMS appeals. * * *

We do not dispute that Tate protested about Burban’s behavior; the problem is that he did not necessarily believe that her behavior was illegal at the time. See Mattson v. Caterpillar, Inc., 359 F.3d 885, 891 (7th Cir. 2004) (“The purpose of requiring that plaintiffs reasonably believe in good faith that they have suffered discrimination is clear. Title VII was designed to protect the rights of employees who in good faith protest the discrimination they believe they have suffered and to ensure that such employees remain free from reprisals or retaliatory conduct.”) (emphasis added). Indeed, Tate testified that he “wanted to leave Dawn” so that he could “start off with a clean slate” and “be true” to his wife. While there are no “magic words” that a plaintiff must use in order to indicate that the supervisor’s behavior is unlawful, Gates v. Caterpillar, Inc., 513 F.3d 680, 687 (7th Cir. 2008), the record is devoid of any statements that indicate sexual harassment was at issue. Because Tate has failed to establish that he had a good faith belief that he was being sexually harassed, EMS is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

III. CONCLUSION. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is REVERSED.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 10, 2008 12:14 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions