The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently ruled that a retaliation claim survived summary judgment because of the “convincing mosaic” of evidence of retaliation the Plaintiff presented, particularly the employer’s purportedly shifting explanation regarding its reason for terminating her employment. Wessman v. DDB Chicago Inc., No. 12-cv-6712 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 29, 2013).
Plaintiff Audrey Wessman (“Plaintiff”) was employed by DDB Chicago Inc. (the “Company”), an advertising agency, intermittently from 1997 to 2011. In late March 2011, Plaintiff was assigned as an Account Director for a grocery store chain. In early July 2011, the Company terminated Plaintiff’s employment. Plaintiff then filed suit, claiming that her termination amounted to retaliation resulting from her complaints that a Company executive made sexual statements about a Company colleague to her.
The Court denied the Company’s motion for summary judgment, concluding there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding the reason the Company’s terminated Plaintiff’s employment. According to the Court, during the course of the EEOC’s investigation into Plaintiff’s charge of discrimination, as well as the litigation of her claims, the Company offered various—and at times, inconsistent—explanations for its actions. In light of these conflicting explanations, some of which were contradicted by the evidence, the Court concluded that the Company’s proffered explanations may not be credible. For example, the Company stated that it did not offer Plaintiff a position on another team because she was “divisive” and there were no available openings on other teams. Yet, the Court concluded that it could draw a reasonable inference in Plaintiff’s favor that there was an opening on another account team during the relevant time period. In addition, the Court questioned the credibility of the Company’s explanation regarding the dearth of open positions if Plaintiff’s divisiveness “had been the principal cause for concern.” The Court also noted that the timing of Plaintiff’s termination was “suspicious” when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to her because Plaintiff was terminated approximately three weeks after her final complaint.
This decision underscores the importance of demonstrating a consistent basis for termination, and is somewhat helpful to litigants in Illinois who are still trying to understand the contours of “convincing mosaic of evidence” in the employment retaliation context.