Seventh Circuit Affirms Defense Win in Employment Discrimination Case

October 29, 2021

Plaintiff Richard Brooks, a City of Kankakee police officer, sued his employer for alleged employment discrimination. Brooks claimed that the City’s failure to promote him to sergeant and several instances of on-the-job discipline were unlawful retaliation for his past complaints about alleged racial bias within the police department.

The City won summary judgment on all claims except whether a single letter of reprimand issued by the former police chief was unlawful retaliation. That remaining claim was tried by a jury and ended in a defense verdict. The Plaintiff appealed both the summary judgment and jury verdict (more precisely, the denial of his motion for a new trial). But the Seventh Circuit unanimously rejected all of Brooks’ arguments and affirmed the complete defense victory.

Brooks first argued that he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the various statements which prompted the discipline letter were per se protected activity under Title VII, thus making the reprimand letter unlawful retaliation. The Seventh Circuit, however, agreed with the district court that whether these statements were protected turned on a hotly disputed question of fact, which was for the jury to decide. In short, Brooks made very specific accusations multiple times against the police department, and these accusations were at least in part demonstrably false. But exactly what Brooks said, and when, and why, and, most importantly, what he knew or should have known at the time he made those statements, were all highly disputed.  It was therefore for the jury to decide whether Brooks had a reasonable, good-faith basis in the truth of his statements, making them protected, or he spoke unreasonably or in bad faith, making his accusations unprotected and the reprimand legitimate. The was enough evidence for the jury to go either way, and it was not for the Court of Appeals to substitute its judgment for that of the jury, which found for the defense.

Brooks’ second argument focused on the jury instructions. Here, the Seventh Circuit held that despite the district court’s significant work, the instructions did not accurately match the proof at trial or positions of the parties.  Thus, they were incorrect in that they required Brooks to prove more than was legally required. Even so, this mistake did not require reversal, because any error did not prejudice Brooks. All of his statements “included varying degrees of factual falsehoods,” and there is no reason to think the outcome would have been different under different jury instructions.

Third, Brooks argued that the district court should not have dismissed his disparate impact claim. But the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that Brooks never pleaded this claim. Rather, he raised “disparate impact,” which is an entirely separate cause of action from the retaliation claim that he did plead, only in response to the City’s summary judgment motion. This is procedurally improper, and, moreover, the facts come nowhere close to providing the basis for such a claim. Thus, the district court was correct to dispute it.

The City was represented at trial and on appeal by Hervas, Condon, and Bersani partners Mike Condon, Charles Hervas, and David Mathues.

Brooks v. City of Kankakee

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