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.

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Photo of Steven J. Pearlman Steven J. Pearlman

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular…

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular focus on defending companies against claims of employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment; whistleblower retaliation; restrictive covenant violations; theft of trade secrets; and wage-and-hour violations. He has successfully tried cases in multiple jurisdictions, and defended one of the largest Illinois-only class actions in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He also secured one of only a few ex parte seizures orders that have been issued under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, and obtained a world-wide injunction in federal litigation against a high-level executive who jumped ship to a competitor.

Reporting to boards of directors, their audit committees, CEOs and in-house counsel, Steven conducts sensitive investigations and has testified in federal court. His investigations have involved complaints of sexual harassment involving C-suite officers; systemic violations of employment laws and company policies; and fraud, compliance failures and unethical conduct.

Steven was recognized as Lawyer of the Year for Chicago Labor & Employment Litigation in the 2023 edition of The Best Lawyers in America. He is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.  Chambers describes Steven as an “outstanding lawyer” who is “very sharp and very responsive,” a “strong advocate,” and an “expert in his field.” Steven was 1 of 12 individuals selected by Compliance Week as a “Top Mind.” Earlier in his career, he was 1 of 5 U.S. lawyers selected by Law360 as a “Rising Star Under 40” in the area of employment law and 1 of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch” selected by Law Bulletin Publishing Company. Steven is a Burton Award Winner (U.S. Library of Congress) for “Distinguished Legal Writing.”

Steven has served on Law360’s Employment Editorial Advisory Board and is a Contributor to He has appeared on Bloomberg News (television and radio) and Yahoo! Finance, and is regularly quoted in leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has engaged Steven to serve as lead counsel on amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal circuit courts of appeal. He was appointed to serve as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois in employment litigation matters. He has presented with the Solicitor of the DOL, the Acting Chair of the EEOC, an EEOC Commissioner, Legal Counsel to the EEOC and heads of the SEC, CFTC and OSHA whistleblower programs. He is also a member of the Sedona Conference, focusing on trade secret matters.