BURNELL v. GATES RUBBER CO. (July 27, 2011)

Eddie Burnell, an African-American male, worked in Gates Rubber Co.'s tool room from 1993 to 1996. He claims that he was subjected to racial discrimination during this time. After several years elsewhere, he returned to the tool room in 2003. In December of 2006, his supervisor instructed him to perform a task. When he did not do so, the supervisor issued a written warning. Burnell refused to accept the warning, claiming that he did not have time to perform the task. Burnell complained to the plant manager that the warning was inappropriate. His principal excuse was that he did not have time to complete the task. He later added that he had safety concerns. At a later meeting, the plant manager accused Burnell of "playing the race card." The employee relations manager convinced the plant manager not to fire Burnell if he signed a commitment letter. They presented Burnell with a commitment letter that implied that he was guilty of insubordination and dishonesty. He refused to sign the letter. He was fired. Burnell brought suit, alleging Title VII discriminatory discharge and retaliatory discharge claims and a § 1981 discrimination claim. Judge Kapala (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to Gates. Burnell appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Kanne, Rovner, and Sykes affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part. The Court first addressed his Title VII discriminatory discharge claim along with his § 1981 claim, which the Court noted are nearly identical. The Court rejected Burnell's claim under the direct method. Most of Burnell's circumstantial evidence related to the 1993-1996 period. The sum of his circumstantial evidence would not permit a rational jury to make a causal connection between Burnell’s termination and race discrimination. The Court also rejected the claim under the indirect method since he could satisfy neither the “met expectations” nor the "similarly situated" prongs of the test. The Court turned to his Title VII retaliatory discharge claim. Burnell clearly suffered a materially adverse employment action and engaged in statutorily protected activity. In fact, he complained quite regularly about what he felt were discriminatory practices in the workplace. To succeed on his retaliation claim, therefore, he needed only to connect his termination with his complaints. The Court relied almost exclusively on the plant manager's "playing the race card" comment, along with the history of discrimination complaints, to conclude that his claim should have survived summary judgment.