CHICAGO - A federal appeals panel has partially reversed a federal judge's order, which had granted a win to Advocate Christ Medical Center, against claims brought by a group of African American hospital workers who alleged they faced a hostile work environment.
Last month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in a 2-1 decision revived one of the workers' claims against Advocate and the hospital in which they work, as the majority said they believed the plaintiffs' claims were substantiated with enough evidence to allow the legal action to move ahead.
Seventh Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner authored the majority opinion, with Circuit Judge David Hamilton concurring, to send the hostile work environment issue back to the lower court for further proceedings, upending the decision from U.S. District Judge Manish Shah to grant summary judgment to the hospital.
Seventh Circuit Judge Daniel Manion dissented.
In the majority opinion, the judges noted the plaintiff's complaint detailed alleged extensive derogatory language and other issues, particularly on the part of a handful of supervisors.
“The plaintiffs’ brief is awash in facts and controversies," Rovner wrote. "They claim that these numerous disputes and presentations of conflicting evidence create genuine issues of material fact. It is true that cases with jumbles of ostensibly disputed facts often signal the need for a trial on the facts.”
The majority also noted the “material disputed fact” of the case did not allow them to determine whether specific individuals accused of participating in harassing activity actually attended anti-discrimination training offered by the employer.
However, the appeals court said the plaintiffs did not go far enough to prove African American workers were treated differently by the employer than their co-workers, upholding Judge Shah's decision on some of the other claims asserted by the plaintiffs, beside the hostile work environment claims.
“For purposes of Title VII, plaintiffs need to produce evidence that similarly situated non-African-American employees were treated more favorably,” the majority said. “Plaintiffs have failed to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of the same element discussed above, which is essential to their case and on which they will bear the burden of proof at trial.”
In his dissent, Judge Manion said he agreed with Judge Shah's conclusion concerning the plaintiffs' hostile work environment claims, saying the plaintiffs' individual cases were "extraordinarily weak." He noted one plaintiff "complains of just one racially charged comment the entire time she was employed at Advocate," and another never cited a single racially hostile comment ever directed at him while on the job.
He backed Judge Shah's conclusion "that 'each of these comments should be cause for concern, but they were not so serious (on their own or in combination) or so numerous that they materially influenced plaintiffs’ working conditions.'"
The plaintiffs are represented in the case by attorneys Jeffrey M. Friedman and Arijana Keserovic, of Chicago.
Advocate is represented by attorneys Jill S. Vorobiev and Courtney M. Ofosu, of Reed Smith LLP, of Chicago.