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Seventh Circuit Holds EEOC Demonstrated Constructive Discharge Of Hospital Employee Based On Religious Discrimination

 
 

HLD, v. 30, n. 3 (March 2002)

Seventh Circuit Holds EEOC Demonstrated Constructive Discharge Of Hospital Employee Based On Religious Discrimination

Victoria Leyva, an Evangelical Christian Baptist, was employed by the University of Chicago Hospitals (University) as a recruiter. On her evaluations, she received high marks from her former immediate supervisor. A few years later, the University hired JoAnn Shaw, a Roman Catholic, as Associate Director of the Chicago Hospitals and Director of Human Resources. After Shaw arrived, Leyva received poor evaluations, and was accused of failing to follow Shaw's directive to stop recruiting at churches or church job fairs. Leyva's new immediate supervisor, Ralph Borkowicz, indicated that "Shaw made it very clear that she had a problem with [Leyva's] religious beliefs and bringing religion into the workplace," and called Leyva a "religious fanatic." Shaw repeatedly told Borkowicz that she wanted Leyva fired. Shaw terminated Borkowicz when he refused to fire Leyva. Borkowicz's replacement gave Leyva a poor evaluation based on Shaw's comments and his observations during his first month. Leyva prepared a resignation letter, which she planned to submit when she returned from vacation. She returned to work to find that her desk had been packed up and her office was being used for storage. Leyva submitted the resignation letter and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC sued the University under Title I and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and 1964, alleging unlawful discrimination based on religion. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the University. Applying the "hostile-work-environment-plus" analysis, the trial court determined that the harassment alleged by the EEOC did not constitute constructive discharge, and that the alleged harassment was not based on religion.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the decision of the trial court, holding that the EEOC adequately demonstrated constructive discharge on the basis of religious discrimination. First, the appeals court held that the EEOC met its burden in demonstrating constructive discharge. The court held that allegations of discriminatory harassment, which are subject to a higher standard than hostile work environment, are not the only way a plaintiff can demonstrate constructive discharge. The court held that "[w]hen an employer acts in a manner so as to have communicated to a reasonable employee that she will be terminated, and the plaintiff employee resigns, the employer's conduct may amount to constructive discharge." The court, looking at the facts of the instant case, determined that a reasonable employee "standing in Leyva's shoes" would have believed that she would have been terminated had she not resigned. The court emphasized the fact that, when Leyva returned to work after vacation, her desk was packed and her office was used for storage. The court noted Borkowicz's statements were not inadmissible hearsay, but merely demonstrated Leyva's reasonable belief that she would be terminated.

Second, the court held that the EEOC met its burden in demonstrating religiously discriminatory intent. The court rejected the University's argument that it was necessary that "the incidents that surround the constructive discharge themselves constitute actionable religious discrimination." The appeals court held that "instead our focus is whether those incidents, and other supporting evidence, could support the reasonable inference that the alleged constructive discharge was based on religious discrimination." The court, citing Borkowicz's testimony that Shaw called Leyva a "religious fanatic" and had problems with Levya's religious beliefs, the changes in Leyva's evaluations, and Shaw's allegations of hiring at churches, concluded that there was sufficient evidence to defeat the University's summary judgment motion.

EEOC v. Univ. of Chicago Hosps., No. 00-4065, 2001 WL 1666523 (7th Cir. Jan. 2, 2002) (6 pages)

Health Lawyers thanks Timothy P. Blanchard, of McDermott, Will & Emery, in Los Angeles, California, for sending us a copy of this opinion.

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