On April 14, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in the employer’s favor on Title VII race discrimination claims filed by an Indiana University lecturer. In rejecting the lecturer’s claims of unequal pay and failure to promote, the Court shed light on how to establish a proper comparator and the general importance of consistent employee treatment with respect to promotion and compensation decisions.

In 2010, the University of Indiana hired the plaintiff, an African American man, as a lecturer for its Kelley School of Business Marketing Department. Three years later, the plaintiff inquired about a promotion to senior lecturer, but his Department Chair, Professor Krishnan, discouraged him from applying because lecturers typically were not promoted until their sixth year. The University subsequently promoted the plaintiff to senior lecturer in 2016, and by this time, he also served as Diversity Coach for the University’s MBA program. However, the plaintiff resigned from his position as Diversity Coach in the spring of 2017, which resulted in him losing the additional $25,000 per year that he received for this role.

During the summer of 2018, the plaintiff complained to his Department Chair after learning that a White lecturer hired in 2016 – Josh Gildea – was already making nearly as much in base salary as the plaintiff. Specifically, while the plaintiff was the highest paid lecturer in the Department at $98,750, he complained that Professor Gildea was already earning $94,000. Over the next few weeks, the plaintiff made several additional complaints to his supervisors, generally claiming that Professor Krishnan had discriminated against him on numerous occasions because of his race. Professor Gildea then received a promotion to senior lecturer in 2019, leading the plaintiff to file a lawsuit against the University alleging racial discrimination under Title VII.

The district court granted Indiana University’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed to the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the plaintiff focused on two situations that allegedly demonstrated the University’s racial bias: 1) Professor Krishnan discouraging him from seeking a promotion in 2013; and 2) the plaintiff’s aggregate salary in comparison to Professor Gildea’s salary between 2017 and 2019.

As to the 2013 incident with Professor Krishnan, the Seventh Circuit found this claim to be time-barred. A Title VII claimant must file an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) charge within 300 days of the allegedly unlawful employment practice, and here, the plaintiff did not file an EEOC charge until May 2019, which clearly falls well beyond the statutory period. The plaintiff sought to apply the doctrine of equitable tolling to save his failure to promote claim, arguing he did not realize that Professor Krishnan discriminated against him until Professor Gildea was promoted in 2019. However, the Court reasoned that the plaintiff must have realized this alleged discrimination by at least 2018 since he lodged multiple discrimination complaints around this time.

Regarding his claim of unequal pay, the plaintiff pointed out that, between the 2017-18 and 2019-20 school years, Professor Gildea earned $171,731 more than the plaintiff did. In response, the University demonstrated that $105,000 of that difference was due to Professor Gildea’s role as Director of the Business Marketing Academy (“BMA”), which achieved notable success under Professor Gildea’s supervision. The plaintiff countered that the remaining salary difference nevertheless demonstrated a race-based compensation disparity, but the Seventh Circuit disagreed. To that end, the University was able to show that Professor Gildea taught several “overload” classes in excess of a typical lecturer’s course load, and that he received larger raises for growing the BMA into the largest academy in the MBA program. Accordingly, the Court held that the plaintiff failed to establish Professor Gildea as an adequate comparator given that the plaintiff taught fewer classes than Professor Gildea and resigned from his administrative role as Diversity Coach (unlike Professor Gildea, who remained Director of the BMA). The Court thus affirmed summary judgment in the University’s favor.

The Seventh Circuit’s analysis of the plaintiff’s supposed comparator evidence provides several notable reminders for employers potentially facing similar Title VII claims. For instance, the Court highlighted the standard of proof for an unequal pay claim of this nature: the plaintiff must show “unequal pay for equal work.” As Indiana University did in this case, employers should ensure that promotions, salary increases, and bonus payments are grounded in a legitimate (and of course, documented!) work-related reason. Moreover, it is important for employers to keep their promotion/salary increase standards consistent across their respective departments or units. A key point in the University’s favor was the fact that Professor Gildea performed more work and achieved more tangible success than his Department peers, leading him to receive larger raises in compensation.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit made an interesting statement when the plaintiff tried to challenge the University’s reviews of Professor Gildea’s performance. Here, the plaintiff argued that Indiana University gave too much credit to Professor Gildea for the BMA’s success. However, the Court noted that it is “not a super-personnel board,” meaning that it would not assess the University’s judgment in making compensation decisions. This is an important point for employers, as it shows that, so long as compensation decisions are grounded in legitimate evidence and supported by documentation, courts will generally not substitute their judgment for that of the employer.