Heyl Royster


Heyl Royster


Summary Judgment Upheld For Employer in Racial Discrimination Case


By: Jordan Emmert, jemmert@heylroyster.com

The Seventh Circuit recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer in Madlock v. WEC Energy Group, Inc., 885 F.3d 465 (7th Cir. 2018). The plaintiff, Madlock, worked for the Wisconsin Electric Power Company (WEPCO), for approximately 40 years. Madlock was a senior member of the industrial billing division and described herself as a “confident and knowledgeable African American Woman.” Madlock, 885 F.3d at 468. Though Madlock was not in management, she was a Lead Customer Service Specialist and was a point person for a team of billers who would come to her with questions.

In 2011, WEPCO made the decision to assign new management to the billing department where Madlock was assigned. The new management team consisted of Tiller, the manager, Frelka, the Director, and Wrycza, the team leader and Madlock’s direct supervisor. Wrycza and Madlock butted heads almost immediately. The new management team began to take notice of some issues with Madlock’s behavior, such as personal phone use. In February of 2012, Wrycza gave Madlock an official written coaching, the first step in WEPCO’s graduated discipline system, for a billing error she made in June of 2011. Madlock filed a grievance against the discipline, but it was denied by Tiller. In May of 2012, Wrycza issued Madlock a Record of Disciplinary Action, the second step in the discipline system, because Madlock had approved a bill that overcharged a customer by $58,900. Frelka subsequently downgraded the discipline to the first step. Madlock received another discipline in November of 2012. Id.

In March of 2013, Tiller decided to move Madlock out of Industrial Billing department and into the Volume Billing department, which handled smaller residential accounts. Tiller cited Madlock’s billing errors as the reason for the move. Madlock was moved to a cubicle in the center of the room between two managers, and her Industrial Billing team was told not to come to her with questions any longer. WEPCO did not give Madlock a new team immediately due to her unfamiliarity with Volume Billing. The move did not affect Madlock’s salary or title, but some co-workers described the transfer as a demotion. Wrycza expressed her view to Madlock’s new supervisor that Madlock is a “strong black woman”— a phrase Wrycza had used before. Id. at 469.

On April 4, 2013, Madlock was again disciplined for making an error made from the prior year which resulted in a $10,000 credit back to a customer. Madlock filed an internal discrimination report against Wrycza, alleging that Wrycza discriminated against her on the basis of age and race. Madlock also filed a grievance challenging the discipline from April 4, 2013. In response, WEPCO compiled a list of Madlock’s prior disciplines, both official and unofficial. In December of 2013 a position opened that would have been a promotion for Madlock, however she was not chosen due to her disciplinary record. Madlock subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging WEPCO discriminated against her because of her race and retaliated against her for filing the internal discrimination complaint. Id.

The court noted that the new test for evaluating a discrimination claim is whether the evidence would permit a reasonable fact finder to conclude that the plaintiff’s race caused the discharge or other adverse employment action. Id. at 470. It mentioned further that an adverse employment action is some quantitative or qualitative change in the terms or conditions of employment that is more than a subjective preference. Id. The court ultimately concluded that Madlock did not suffer an adverse employment action because she did not experience a reduction in pay, the loss of a title, or a material change in her working conditions. The court considered whether losing her lead position would constitute an adverse employment action, but ultimately decided that it did not. The court relied on Place v. Abbott Labs., 215 F.3d 803 (7th Cir. 2000), which held that a temporary loss of a leadership role does not constitute an adverse employment action. Place, 215 F.3d at 810.

The court also analyzed Madlock’s retaliation claim. Madlock’s primary basis for the retaliation claim was that the discipline she received in May of 2013, for the billing error she made in August of 2012, harmed her chances of receiving a promotion and that the discipline was in retaliation for her filing of the internal discrimination complaint. The court identified two methods by which an employee can succeed on a retaliation claim — the direct approach or indirect approach. In order to succeed on the direct approach, an employee must show, (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) she suffered a materially adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse action. Madlock, 885 F.3d at 472. To succeed on the indirect approach, the employee must show (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) she suffered a materially adverse employment action; (3) she was meeting the employer's legitimate expectations; and (4) she was treated less favorably than similarly-situated employees who did not engage in protected activity. Id.

The court held that Madlock’s claim failed under both approaches. The court reasoned that Madlock failed the indirect approach because she did not identify a sufficient comparator. Id. It also reasoned that she failed the direct approach because she failed to show a causal link between filing her complaint and her receipt of the discipline or the compilation of the list. Id. The court noted that timing alone is not sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact to support a retaliation claim. Id. at 473.

This case provides a valuable lesson to employers. WEPCO implemented and utilized a graduated discipline procedure. They approached the situation in a fair and objective manner and documented each situation in writing, which ultimately helped them show that Madlock’s claims could not prevail. However, this case also provides examples of what a supervisor should not say. Statements such as those arguably led to Madlock initiating this lawsuit. Even if the comments are not intended as discriminatory, those comments should be avoided.

For any questions relating to discipline systems, racial discrimination, or age discrimination, please contact the attorneys in our Employment and Labor Practice. We also regularly host seminars dedicated to employment and Human Resources topics. If you would like to learn more about these training sessions, please do not hesitate to contact us.