The Northern District of Illinois Rules Against a Plaintiff Alleging Race Discrimination Due To Timing of Complaints

by Yarelyn Mena and Walker G. Harman, Jr.

On January 26, 2016, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the Northern District of Illinois decision to grant summary judgment for the defendant, Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc. (“Sedgwick”), in a race-discrimination lawsuit filed by Ratna Bagwe, a former Sedgwick employee. This case illustrates how courts in other districts can arrive at very different conclusions than a New York court might arrive at given New York’s case law and differing legal standards. However, this case does adequately illustrate the difficulties that a Plaintiff will encounter if they wait too long to complain. In this case, the Court found that a year was too long.

Ms. Bagwe began her employment with Sedgwick in March 2001 at its Chicago location. For several years, she claimed to have performed her duties satisfactorily, as evidenced by several pay raises and promotions. In late 2007, Ms. Bagwe’s direct supervisor, Delaine Simmons, allegedly attempted to prevent Sedgwick’s managing director, Tammy LeClaire, from promoting Ms. Bagwe. Ms. Simmons allegedly believed that Ms. Bagwe demonstrated poor leadership skills. Against Ms. Simmons’s wishes, Ms. LeClaire promoted Ms. Bagwe.

In June 2008, Ms. Bagwe went on a business trip with Ms. LeClaire and another Sedgwick employee, Anne Coyle. During the trip, Ms. LeClaire discussed her divorce and allegedly urged Ms. Bagwe to leave her “old Indian husband” and go for a “white man because white men are more fun.” Ms. Bagwe alleged that Ms. Coyne made similar remarks. Ms. Bagwe did not complain to management about the incident.

In January 2009, Ms. Bagwe had a verbal altercation with Ms. Coyne. One of Sedgwick’s account executives, Charles French, overheard the argument and expressed concerns about Ms. Bagwe’s leadership skills to his manager, Angela Popaioannou. On February 10, 2009, Ms. Bagwe attended a meeting with Mr. French to discuss the altercation. At that meeting, Ms. Bagwe disclosed for the first time Ms. Coyne’s and Ms. LeClaire’s allegedly anti-Indian comments. After the meeting, Mr. French sent a memorandum to management detailing his belief that Ms. Bagwe was an ineffective leader, citing her conflicts with co-workers, questioning decisions that she previously approved, and her team’s failure to share reports within the company. As a result, in March 2009, Ms. Bagwe was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”). In response to Ms. Bagwe’s complaints of the alleged anti-Indian comments, Mr. French dismissed them, stating, “If you overheard comments being made by another colleague about someone else, it was your role and responsibility to address the issue at that time and not a year later.”

In April 2009, Ms. Bagwe challenged the PIP, sending a complaint to management in which she stated that she was enduring “discrimination, harassment, bullying, and [a] hostile work environment.” She accused Sedgwick of refusing her additional pay raises equal to other employees based on her race. Sedgwick conducted an investigation, and in June 15, 2009, issued a report that found that Ms. Bagwe’s compensation was more than fair and that several co-workers found her to be abrasive and non-approachable.

On August 13, 2009, Sedgwick’s management met and unanimously decided to terminate Ms. Bagwe. After the meeting, Ms. Bagwe claimed that Ms. Papaioannou mumbled “Indian bitch” to her. In February 2010, a white male was hired to replace Ms. Bagwe. The replacement had management experience, which Ms. Bagwe did not, and started at a higher salary, which was justified by Ms. LeClaire based on “his level of experience and years of management.”

The Illinois district court found that the comment made about Ms. Bagwe’s “old Indian husband” was made outside of the workplace and unrelated to employment. Additionally, the “Indian bitch” comment allegedly made the day of Ms. Bagwe’s termination was insufficient and too isolated an incident to sustain her claim of race discrimination. New York Courts would likely apply a different standard, arriving at the opposite conclusion. Comments outside the workplace can be actionable in New York and one comment can be enough to create a claim for hostile work environment. Regarding Ms. Bagwe’s unequal pay claim, the Illinois court found that Sedgwick had not discriminated against her because it consistently promoted her above the median rate and conducted an investigation that yielded non-discriminatory results.

Notwithstanding the districts’ differing case law, this case illustrates the unfortunate difficulties faced by plaintiffs who bring discrimination claims who waited a year before complaining of discriminatory conduct. It is important for employees to raise complaints of discrimination immediately, not only to prevent the issue from escalating, but also to create a record of harassment if the complaints are ignored.

If you have felt discriminated against at work, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.