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Chambers v. Fair Employment Practices Com.





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. ARTHUR L. DUNNE, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff Vandola Chambers filed an administrative review action (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 110, par. 264 et seq.) seeking review of an order of the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission (hereinafter Commission) dismissing his unfair employment practice charge filed against defendant Ford Motor Company (hereinafter Company). Plaintiff contended that the Company committed an unfair employment practice under section 3(a) of the Fair Employment Practice Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 853(a)). The court affirmed the Commission's order, and plaintiff appealed, contending that the Commission abused its discretion by dismissing the plaintiff's charge where it was supported by substantial evidence.

For the reasons stated hereinafter, we reverse and remand.

The record reveals that plaintiff filed an unfair employment practice charge with the Commission on September 13, 1978, charging that the Company discriminated against him by placing him on a medical leave of absence on the basis of a perceived mental handicap in that the alleged condition did not constitute a mental handicap and had no affect on his ability to perform his assigned work duties. According to plaintiff's charge, several physicians diagnosed his condition and approved his return to work. Although plaintiff had been told by the Company's labor relations representative that he could return to work if he could present a physician's diagnosis of his condition, the Company refused to return the plaintiff to work unless he sought psychiatric treatment.

An investigation of plaintiff's charge was held pursuant to the Act. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 48, par. 858.) The focus of the investigation was to determine whether there was substantial evidence supporting the plaintiff's charge. The investigation revealed that plaintiff was hired by the Company on January 21, 1970. On November 16, 1976, he was placed on medical leave of absence at which time the Company's physician recommended that plaintiff see a psychiatrist. It was the Company's position during the investigation that plaintiff was not handicapped but that he did suffer from a temporary disability and that, although he was capable of performing his work, he needed to receive psychiatric treatment.

According to the investigatory report, plaintiff exhibited unusual behavior at work which included carrying derogatory signs throughout the work area, leaving his work area to stare at other employees while they worked, and his refusal to be relieved for his breaks. There was no indication in this report, however, whether this unusual behavior prevented plaintiff from performing his work duties. The report also cites an incident involving plaintiff and a co-worker which occurred on April 24, 1975. The event, according to a statement supplied to the investigator, apparently was occasioned by plaintiff taunting the co-worker by waving a white rag at him and carrying a sign which contained derogatory comments about the co-worker on it. At this point the co-worker grabbed plaintiff around the neck and shoulders and plaintiff became angry and threw shock absorbers at the co-worker and then chased him down the assembly line.

In plaintiff's request for reconsideration filed with the Commission after the dismissal of his charge, plaintiff contended that this altercation was precipitated by the co-worker and that both men were sent home following the incident. Plaintiff was then placed on medical leave until September 1975. After returning from this medical leave, plaintiff worked without incident until November 16, 1976, when he was again placed on medical leave.

According to both the investigation report and the motion to reconsider, plaintiff saw a number of doctors after the Company placed him on the second medical leave. Plaintiff was evaluated by Dr. Douglas L. Foster, a psychiatrist, on several occasions in December 1976 and January 1977. Dr. Foster's early letters and reports indicate that plaintiff suffered from a form of paranoia which made it difficult for him to assess reality and that he was not able to return to work. In a letter dated December 20, 1976, Dr. Foster acknowledged that plaintiff did not believe his diagnosis and was not amenable to treatment. He also wrote:

"It is very difficult to determine if the extent of his illness is such that it currently interferes severely with his work * * * [and] the more appropriate way of handling the situation would be to make the referral to two other psychiatrists so as to get independent judgments * * *."

In a letter to the Company dated January 24, 1977, Foster reported that plaintiff could return to work. In a subsequent letter to plaintiff on February 23, 1977, however, Foster stressed his belief that plaintiff had a psychiatric condition and needed treatment. Dr. Foster also noted that he had conditioned plaintiff's return to work on certain terms. Plaintiff also saw Dr. R.R. Edrosa on January 4, 1977, who indicated that plaintiff could return to work in that he evidenced no abnormalities.

In April of 1978 the Company's physician directed a letter to Dr. Ellis D. Johnson, a psychiatrist, informing him of the Company's belief that plaintiff had a psychiatric problem. Dr. Johnson was specifically asked if he would determine if "it is safe for him to return to work" and whether "you feel he would in any way be a danger to others working around him?" Pursuant to this request, Dr. Johnson examined plaintiff and diagnosed him as a paranoid personality. In his formal recommendation to the Company, he stated:

"I recommend that Mr. Chambers be permitted to return to his employment. He does not appear to be a danger to his peers or supervisors. If he is unable to perform his duties satisfactorily, I recommend that he be referred to personnel for administrative decisions * * *."

Plaintiff also saw Dr. James M. Allison, Jr., on March 8, 1977, who concluded that plaintiff "shows no evidence of mental or physical disability." The record, however, is contradictory as to whether Dr. Allison is a psychiatrist or a surgeon.

The investigatory report recommended that plaintiff's charge should be dismissed. The report did concede, however, that "there appears to be no agreement as to whether complainant is able to safely return to work." The Commission adopted the investigatory report's recommendation and subsequently denied the request for reconsideration. The Commission's findings suggested it placed major reliance upon Drs. Foster's and Johnson's reports, while placing little, if any, reliance upon the reports of Drs. Allison and Edrosa because they were not psychiatrists. The Commission also noted that Dr. V.V. Urba had examined ...

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