CHICAGO (CN) – A black man cannot prove the Illinois Department of Corrections processed a sexual harassment complaint against him differently than those against white employees, leading to his resignation, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Milton Luster began working as a prison guard in 1988. He was promoted several times and eventually became a lieutenant at the Dwight Correctional Center.
In 2006, a white co-worker named complained that Luster had pinned her against a wall while on duty and put his mouth on her neck forcefully enough to leave red marks. She also reported that Luster had sexually harassed her while at work, called her and showed up at her home uninvited. The woman admitted to having had an affair with Luster four years earlier.
After investigating the incident, a hearing officer recommended that Luster be fired. He was suspended without pay and was recommended for firing to the Illinois Department of Central Management Services. Though Luster could have challenged his suspension by filing a grievance with the Civil Service Commission within 30 days, he chose to resign and sued the Department of Corrections for discrimination.
But Luster was unable to present compelling evidence that white employees were treated differently, the 7th Circuit determined.
The similarly situated white guard whom Luster cited was also suspended for sexual harassment but successfully filed a grievance and retained his job, rather than resigning and filing suit as Luster had done.
The three-judge panel addressed complaints by Luster’s lawyer that courts favor employers in discrimination claims by requiring more than the circumstantial evidence – the primary form of evidence in most discrimination claims.
“Counsel suggests that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, developed to address situations where there is no smoking gun, is too inflexible and burdensome for plaintiffs,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court. “Some commentators agree… The McDonnell Douglas framework is not perfect, but it remains the law of the land for handling cases without direct evidence of unlawful discrimination. It can be and has been adapted, as we have done in discriminatory discipline cases like this one. And we have often cautioned parties to avoid an unduly rigid barrier between direct and circumstantial evidence of discrimination, such as in our ‘convincing mosaic’ line of cases.”