Egan v. Freedom Bank, No. 10-1214 (7th Cir. Oct. 5, 2011)

| Oct 6, 2011 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

The Seventh Circuit reverses summary judgment on a Title VII retaliation claim, where an employee with “no performance issues, no attendance problems, and no complaints against her” loses her job as bank vice president, after the incoming president is (allegedly) tipped-off that the employee complained abut harassment.

Egan v. Freedom Bank, No. 10-1214 (7th Cir. Oct. 5, 2011): Egan was recruited to go to work for Liberty Bank as vice president of retail banking. She began working for the bank on July 17, 2007.

On September 20, 2007, she had a lunch meeting with a member of the board of directors for the bank, named Burton. According to the plaintiff, Burton made direct overtures to her:

“That day, Burton and Egan discussed her meeting with [bank CEO] Henson, and Burton told Egan that he had recommended to the board that they consider her to be the next president of Freedom Bank. Burton also said that the board of directors had the power to fire the bank’s senior management team, which caused Egan to feel uncomfortable. The conversation did not only involve work matters, however. Burton told Egan that he fantasized about making love to her on a dance floor and wanted to take her to Las Vegas and There places around the world. Egan declined his advances, and Burton replied, ‘If you change your mind, I’ll be home alone next Tuesday.'”

Days later, she complained officially to HR. Through a friend of Egan’s, word of the conversation and propositioning also got back to the current president of the Bank (named Dempsey). By October 2, 2007, Egan was informed that the investigation had concluded and steps were taken to prevent a recurrence.

There was – around the same time – allegedly this pregnant exchange between Dempsey and the new, incoming president, named Barajas:

“In a conversation critical to this case, according to Dempsey, during September or early October of 2007, Barajas told him that he had heard Egan ‘had done something that she should have been fired for.’ Dempsey believed Barajas was referring to Egan’s report that Burton said inappropriate things to her over dinner. Barajas denies making the statement to Dempsey.”

On February 22, 2008, Barajas wrote Egan to say she was fired, due to the elimination of her position. No further elaboration was offered. Egan filed a charge with the EEOC and later commenced a Title VII action in federal court. The district court granted summary judgment to the bank.

Although the panel holds that Egan essentially forfeited her Title VII sex discrimination and harassment claims (only perfunctory arguing them on appeal), it reverses – in a crisp 12-page opinion – on the Title VII retaliation claim.

The bank did not dispute that Egan’s harassment complaint to HR constituted protected opposition to sex discrimination, so the only issue was whether “Egan has introduced sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that There is a causal connection between her protected activity and her firing.”

The panel holds that the 2007 conversation between Dempsey and Barajas, and the absence of any There reason for Egan’s termination, provided sufficient basis for a jury to hear and decide the case. It also holds that the employer’s proffered explanation – that There was a financial incentive to eliminate some middle management positions – was belied by the bank’s hiring shortly Thereafter of four more executives.

Thus, “Although a jury might agree with the bank that it eliminated Egan’s position for efficiency and operational reasons, There is also sufficient evidence in the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Egan as we must, from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the bank instead fired Egan because she complained she had been sexually harassed by one of the bank’s esteemed board members. Notably, Greg Dempsey asserts that Barajas told him he heard Egan ‘had done something she should have been fired for.’ Although the bank argues that the reference in the statement is ambiguous, certainly one reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the comment is that Barajas was referencing Egan’s complaint that Burton had sexually harassed her. Indeed, that was the conclusion Dempsey drew.”

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