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It's Not a Pretext if the Employer Believes It's True

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Columbia College Chicago informed Suriya Smiley, a part-time instructor, that it would not ask her to teach further classes after a student complained that Smiley had singled him out in class because he is Jewish.

Smiley, who is of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, claims that the decision was based on her race or national origin. The district court disagreed, and granted summary judgment in favor of Columbia.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision this week.

At the end of the fall 2008 semester, the complaining student met with two Columbia faculty members, and said that Smiley had singled him out in class because he is Jewish. Stephanie Downs, the Assistant Director for Student Development, met with the student, and documented the meeting in a memorandum. After meeting with Smiley, Downs prepared a "Summary of Discrimination Complaint," and the school concluded that Smiley violated its Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy.

Downs' reports indicate that Smiley made several inappropriate comments about the complaining student, both in class and during the investigation. Smiley denied that she ever made the comments, and argued in a lawsuit that her supposed violation of school policy was just a pretext for discrimination against Smiley based on her national origin.

Because no one at Columbia made explicit comments regarding Smiley's race or national origin, she had to proceed under the indirect method of proving Title VII and civil rights claims. To survive summary judgment, that meant proving:

  1. She is a member of a protected class;
  2. She met Columbia's legitimate expectations;
  3. She suffered an adverse employment action; and
  4. Similarly situated employees outside of the protected classes were treated more favorably.

Columbia claimed that summary judgment should be affirmed because Smiley wasn't meeting the school's expectations. Upon Smiley's request, the appellate court merged the "legitimate expectations" prong with the pretextual analysis to examine whether her performance was the real reason for her termination. Smiley maintains that the school's limited investigation in her case was deficient and that it evidences pretext.

Here, the appellate court concluded that the school's procedures did not require school officials to conduct a more extensive inquiry into Smiley's alleged discriminatory conduct, and the school's investigation against Smiley did not indicate that its reason for telling her that she would not be asked to teach more classes was pretextual.

The court concluded, "Pretext does not exist if the decision-maker honestly believed the nondiscriminatory reason for its employment action ... On this record, we conclude that Smiley has not provided sufficient evidence of pretext and that summary judgment was proper."

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