EATON v. INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS (September 9, 2011)

The Indiana Department of Corrections employed Autumn Eaton as a correctional officer from early 2006 until early 2008.. For her first year, she had watch tour duty, which required her to walk her assigned unit and monitor the inmates. She was reassigned to control room duty in early 2007, a more attractive assignment that did not involve physical contact with inmates. She also had an attractive work schedule. In late 2007, the Department reprimanded her for excessive absenteeism and warned that she could be given a less attractive work schedule. In fact, shortly after the reprimand, she was assigned to a less attractive work schedule. Before the change took place, she took several weeks of FMLA leave. When she returned, she resumed her duties under the attractive schedule. She was later in a car accident and given certain work restrictions by her physician. Although she did not originally disclosed the restrictions to the Department for fear of a schedule reassignment, she eventually did. The Department told her that her schedule would not be changed. In March of 2008, Eaton returned from a vacation to learn that she had been reassigned from the control room back to watch tour duty. In fact, she was assigned to duty in the "worst unit" in the facility. She refused the assignment, insisting that it was inconsistent with her medical restrictions and that she was not capable of doing it. Her supervisor demanded her badge, which she begrudgingly turned over, insisting that she did not want to quit her job. Her mother, also a Department correctional officer, met with Eaton's supervisor. Although the supervisor originally advised Eaton's mother that Eaton could return for her next shift, he later retracted the statement and barred Eaton from the facility. Eaton brought suit under Title VII for gender discrimination. Judge Magnus-Stinson (S.D. Ind.) granted summary judgment to the Department, concluding that she failed to make out a prima facie case under the indirect method because the male comparators she identified were not similarly situated. Eaton appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Rovner and Wood and District Judge Gottschall reversed and remanded. The only issue for the Court on appeal is whether a jury could conclude that a similarly situated male employee received more favorable treatment. A similarly situated analysis requires a factual inquiry into whether the employees are similar enough that any differences in the way their employer treated them cannot be attributed to factors other than, in this case, gender. The district court found that the two employees differed in the way they rejected a job assignment and in their disciplinary histories. Although the Court agreed that there were some minor differences in the way the two employees rejected a new job assignment, it concluded that a reasonable fact finder could overlook those differences and find the employees similarly situated. With respect to the employees' disciplinary histories, the Court noted that the record was clear that the Department did not consider Eaton's disciplinary history in terminating her employment. A factor that an employer does not consider in a termination decision cannot be used as a factor to distinguish the employee from a similarly situated employee, regardless of its significance. Therefore, the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the Department.