HATMAKER v. MEMORIAL MEDICAL CENTER (August 30, 2010)

When the director of its chaplain staff died, Memorial Medical Center announced a search for her replacement. Rev. Greg Stafford, the acting director, was a candidate for the job. Forrest Hester, the Center's Human Resources Officer, solicited opinions from the staff regarding Stafford's candidacy. Janet Hatmaker, a part-time chaplain, expressed concerns about Stafford's demeanor, appropriateness, and leadership. Hatmaker remained critical of Stafford after his appointment. She told Hester that she and other women were uncomfortable with him, that she thought he was distrustful and uncomfortable with women, and that he had diminished view of younger women. Her remarks prompted Hester to conduct an investigation into the possibility of a hostile work environment. Although Hatmaker was reluctant to participate in the investigation, she ultimately did so. Hatmaker was quite opinionated in her remarks to the investigator, including negative references to Jews, Catholics, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the Center itself. Hester and the investigator concluded that no hostile work environment existed. In fact, Hester was more concerned about Hatmaker's attitude and remarks. He instructed her to stop talking with her co-employees about Stafford and advised that she should resign if she was uncomfortable working under his leadership. When she responded with another communication indicating her preoccupation with Stafford's professional development, Hester suspended her. He later fired her. She brought suit against the Center under Title VII. Title VII prohibits discrimination against an employee because the employee has opposed an unlawful employment practice or has participated in an investigation under the statute. Judge Scott (C.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the Center. Hatmaker appeals.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Posner and Evans affirmed. Title VII’s “participation” clause prohibits discrimination against an employee who participates in investigation but does not protect the employee from being fired if circumstances otherwise warrant. Here, Hatmaker was not fired because of her communications to the investigator -- she was fired for exercising poor judgment and for being preoccupied with some rather innocuous characteristics of her new supervisor. None of her comments actually accused him of discrimination or of creating a hostile work environment. Furthermore, alternatively, the Court stated that an independent ground for affirmance was the fact that Title VII's reference to an "investigation" includes only official investigations, not purely internal investigations. Since no official investigation was conducted here, the participation clause does not apply. Finally, the Court briefly addressed her "opposition" claim. An opposition claim must be based on a good faith and reasonable belief that there is a statutory violation. That belief is not present here.