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Stepp v. Covance, Inc., No. 18-3292 (7th Cir. July 26, 2019)

By Paul Mollica

Here's a terse reminder that when an employer's supposedly "legitimate, non-discriminatory" reason for an adverse action is utterly contradicted by the undisputed timeline, then summary judgment most likely ought to be denied.

Stepp v. Covance, Inc., No. 18-3292 (7th Cir. July 26, 2019): Plaintiff Stepp, a temporary employee on a production line, complained that female and white employees were better treated better than Black and male employees (like himself), culminating in the filing of a charge with the EEOC.

When Stepp reached his nine-month anniversary - the very point when he filed his second charge, specifically naming a supervisor (Casteel) - the company refused to bring him on board as a permanent employee, despite that two of Stepp's temporary co-workers who did not file EEOC charges were hired around the same time. 

Stepp filed a Title VII discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against Covance. The district court granted summary judgment on all counts.

Appealing only the retaliation claim, the Seventh Circuit finds a genuine dispute of material fact on causation and vacates summary judgment. After clarifying that the plaintiff (who was pro se below, but who was represented by counsel on appeal) did not waive his retaliation theory - i.e., that he was not promoted to full-time permanent employment - the per curiam panel lists four succinct items supportive of the plaintiff's case.

1. The "adverse action [was] virtually contemporaneous with the protected activity," establishing temporal proximity.

2. While two co-workers were promoted, inthe normal course at nine months, and "despite his material similarities to these coworkers, Covance did not make Stepp permanent by his ninth month."

3. Casteel filed a possibly spurious complaint against Stepp (for supposedly smirking at him), which also derailed Stepp's promotion.

4. Finally, defendant's timeline was completely off: "Covance's only explanation for its refusal to make Stepp permanent is the hiring freeze. But the freeze occurred two months after Stepp reached nine months at Covance, so it cannot explain Covance's inaction at month nine. On the contrary, Covance's insistence that it did not promote Stepp because of the freeze could suggest to a trier of fact that retaliation was its true motive for not making Stepp permanent."