- The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $300,000 jury award in favor of a longtime Chicago Park District employee who was abruptly fired for alleged time sheet falsifications (Vega v. Chicago Park District, Nos. 19-1926 & 19-1939 (7th Cir. April 7, 2020)). The employee, Lydia Vega, had worked for the Park District since 1987 and received multiple promotions.
- Vega was heavily surveilled following an anonymous tip accusing her of time theft and was eventually fired. In violation of the Park District's union agreement, no progressive discipline was recommended and her immediate supervisor was not consulted. There was evidence that the Park District's HR manager "had little use for Vega's side of the story" and also disregarded facts presented by Vega's former supervisor "who, like Vega, was Hispanic." Vega also presented evidence that the Park District "disciplined Hispanics more harshly than other groups," said the court.
- The 7th Circuit upheld a jury ruling in Vega's favor on her Title VII national origin bias claim, stating that "the fact that Vega relied mainly on circumstantial rather than direct evidence is of no moment. What matters is whether she presented enough evidence to allow the jury to find in her favor — and she did."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin in employment, which includes assignments, promotions, discipline and transfers. National origin bias involves treating employees unfavorably because they are from a particular country or because of their accent or ethnicity, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
As the court in this case mentioned, even if there is not overt evidence of national origin bias — such as the use of slurs or derogatory comments — discrimination can be inferred by looking at the overall facts of a given situation. This may include evidence that a certain group of workers is treated worse than others.
In order to prevent allegations of national origin bias and harassment, employers should adopt clear policies, train employees and supervisors on the applicable rules, and investigate all complaints brought by workers. Workers who violate the rules should be disciplined according to company policy, up to and including termination.
Additionally, all adverse employment decisions should be consistent with established policy and procedures. In this case, for example, the fact that Vega's termination violated "multiple union commitments...itself was important evidence," according to the court.