Summary judgment for IWU affirmed on retaliation, age discrimination claims, but race discrimination claim remanded

The grant of summary judgment to Indiana Wesleyan University on a former employee’s retaliation and age discrimination claims has been upheld, but the issue of whether the employee’s termination was racially motivated has been remanded.

Emily Lewis, a 60-year-old Black woman, began working at IWU in 2017 as director of instructional design, supervising a team of five instructional designers in that position, all of whom were white. Not long after taking the job, Lewis reported to Lorne Oke, the executive director of the Center for Learning and Innovation, that she believed her subordinates did not take direction from her because of her race.

During a July 2018 meeting with Oke and IWU’s diversity officer to address Lewis’ concerns, Oke told Lewis that she should get “Black woman syndrome off of [her] shoulders” and that she was “too smart.”

The following month, Oke informed Lewis that he intended to remove her from her supervisory position and sent her home for the day. According to Oke, he wanted Lewis to take some time away from her subordinates until a new position could be created.

For her part, Lewis believed she was being fired because of her race and immediately contacted the diversity officer and the university’s chancellor.

Lewis claimed she was not told that her position was being changed, but that she was allowed to work from home on intermittent assignments for two months. Instead, a new title was created for her that offered the same pay and benefits as her prior role, but didn’t involve any supervisory or leadership responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Erin Crisp was selected to lead two newly combined departments, including the Center for Learning and Innovation. Crisp ultimately decided to eliminate Lewis’ position, writing in an email that Lewis was “unable to lead or be led.”

In June 2019, Lewis was told that her position was being eliminated and was given two choices: accept a research assistant position or be terminated. Lewis passed on the assistant position and subsequently sued IWU for employment discrimination.

Lewis alleged that her August 2018 “demotion” was retaliatory and that her 2019 termination was in retaliation for her discrimination complaint in 2018. She also asserted her termination was discriminatory on the basis of her race and age.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana granted summary judgment in favor of IWU on the retaliatory demotion and retaliatory termination claims. It also determined Lewis had waived her age discrimination claim by failing to raise it after the university moved for summary judgment.

However, “the district court failed to explain why it was granting summary judgment on Dr. Lewis’s claim that her termination was racially discriminatory,” the 7th Circuit held in Emily Lewis v. Indiana Wesleyan University, 21-2327.

“As a result, we cannot be sure that the district court adequately considered the merits of that claim,” Circuit Judge Amy St. Eve wrote for the 7th Circuit. “The University argues that remand would be futile, and we can affirm for any basis supported by the record. … But given the fact-specific nature of Dr. Lewis’s race discrimination claim, we decline to assess it in the first instance. Accordingly, we vacate summary judgment as to that claim and remand it to the district court.”

But the appellate court affirmed as to the age discrimination claim, finding Lewis waived that issue by failing to point to evidence before the district court suggesting her age drove the decision to eliminate her position.

As to the retaliation claims, the 7th Circuit found that the retaliatory demotion claim could not survive summary judgment because “the facts simply do not support a causal connection between her protected activity and an adverse employment action.”

“Because Dr. Lewis’s protected activity (reporting a claim of race discrimination) did not occur until after the August 6 conversation with Oke, her protected activity could not have caused Oke to demote her,” St. Eve wrote. “The University adds that her new role provided the same pay and benefits, so it could not have constituted a demotion.”

As for the retaliatory termination claim, the 7th Circuit concluded that when Crisp decided to eliminate Lewis’ position, she was unaware that Lewis had complained of discrimination previously.

“Dr. Lewis suggests that Oke’s retaliatory animus should be imputed to Crisp, even though there is no evidence that Crisp knew of her protected activity,” St. Eve wrote. “Unfortunately, she failed to develop this theory below, so she has waived it.

“… The district court’s judgment is affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the court concluded.

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