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Houdnos v. Evans

decided: December 12, 1986.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Springfield Division. No. 81 C 3304--Richard Mills, Judge.

Author: Wood

Before BAUER, Chief Judge, WOOD, JR., Circuit Judge, and CAMPBELL, Senior District Judge.*fn*

WOOD, Jr., Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Kathy Van Houdnos brought a sexual discrimination suit against six employees of the Illinois State Museum. She appeals from a judgment for the defendant employees, entered after the district judge directed verdicts in their favor. Five of the defendants, viz., Bruce McMillan, Basil Hedrick, Maureen McKenna, Susan Pickel-Hedrick, and Judi Johnson, had verdicts directed in their favor at the close of plaintiff's case-in-chief. The sixth defendant, Robert Evans, had his motion for a directed verdict denied at the close of plaintiff's case-in-chief, so he renewed his motion for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence. The district judge reserved his decision on Evans's renewed motion. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff and against defendant Evans only on the issue of liability in this bifurcated trial, the district judge immediately granted Evans's motion for a directed verdict and entered judgment notwithstanding the verdict of the jury. Plaintiff challenges the district judge's granting of defendants' motions for directed verdicts.


Plaintiff received a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Eastern Illinois University. Several years later, in the spring of 1978, she began studying for a master's degree in community arts management at Sangamon State University. Concurrent with her enrollment at Sangamon State, plaintiff applied for an intern position in the art department of the Illinois State Museum, a museum of natural history located in Springfield, Illinois. Plaintiff was awarded the internship and worked at the museum throughout the spring. After the internship ended, and toward the end of the summer, the museum employed plaintiff full time in the art department as a curatorial assistant. This position hot only provided plaintiff with gainful employment, it also partially satisfied the requirements toward her master's degree. Plaintiff's curatorial assistant position was funded through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act ("CETA"); as a result, plaintiff's position was funded for one year only.

During plaintiff's year of employment, in January 1979, another employee in the art department, Steve Mercer, left the museum. Plaintiff and the other members of the art department combined their efforts to do the tasks Mercer had been doing. Plaintiff, believing she was qualified, applied for Mercer's job when the CETA funding lapsed for her position. After the culmination of a series of events, however, plaintiff did not receive Mercer's job. Instead, a male applicant was selected for the position. This lawsuit eventuated.


As an initial matter, we note that "[i]n reviewing a district court's grant of a motion for directed verdict, the standard to be applied by the court of appeals is the same as that applied by the trial court." Panter v. Marshall Field & Co., 646 F.2d 271, 281 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1092, 70 L. Ed. 2d 631, 102 S. Ct. 658 (1981).

The events that occurred between the time of Mercer's departure from the museum and the rejection of plaintiff's application to fill Mercer's position are at the heart of this controversy. By directing verdicts for defendants, the district judge necessarily found that plaintiff had not produced enough evidence about those events, even when viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff's position, to allow the jury to make a reasonable finding in plaintiff's favor. That is the standard by which directed verdicts and judgments notwithstanding jury verdicts are judged. The district judge must determine "whether the evidence presented, combined with all the reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in a light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Tice v. Lampert Yards, Inc., 761 F.2d 1210, 1213 (7th Cir. 1985); Benson v. Allphin, 786 F.2d 268, 279 (7th Cir.) ("The standard for granting a directed verdict is very generous to the nonmovant."), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 848, 107 S. Ct. 172, 93 L. Ed. 2d 109 (1986). The district judge is not permitted to resolve conflicts in the testimony or weigh and evaluate the evidence. These functions are reserved for the jury. See, e.g., Continental Casualty Co. v. Howard, 775 F.2d 876, 879 (7th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1122, 106 S. Ct. 1641, 90 L. Ed. 2d 186 (1986).

Nevertheless, the district judge must determine whether "the evidence, taken as a whole provides a sufficient probative basis upon which a jury could reasonably reach a verdict, without 'speculation over legally unfounded claims.'" Panter v. Marshall Field & Co., 646 F.2d 271, 281 (7th Cir.) (quoting Brady v. Southern Railway, 320 U.S. 476, 480, 88 L. Ed. 239, 64 S. Ct. 232 (1943)), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1092, 102 S. Ct. 658, 70 L. Ed. 631 (1981). As the Supreme Court recognized long ago:

A mere scintilla of evidence is not enough to require the submission of an issue to the jury. The decisions established a more reasonable rule "that in every case, before the evidence is left in the jury, there is a preliminary question for the judge, not whether there is literally no evidence, but whether there is any upon which a jury can properly proceed to find a verdict for the party producing it, upon whom the onus of proof is imposed."

Gunning v. Cooley, 281 U.S. 90, 94, 74 L. Ed. 720, 50 S. Ct. 231 (1930) (quoting Improvement Co. v. Munson, 81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 442, 448, 20 L. Ed. 867 (1871) (footnote omitted)); Hohmann v. Packard Instrument Co., 471 F.2d 815, 819 (7th Cir. 1973).

Therefore, if plaintiff does produce enough evidence of sexual discrimination, viewed in the light most favorable to her claim, the judge cannot direct a verdict but instead must send the case to the jury.


Plaintiff pursued her sexual discrimination claim under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 (1982).*fn1 A successful claim under section 1983 requires plaintiff to prove (1) that defendants acted under color of state law, (2) that defendants' actions deprived plaintiff of her rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed by the Constitution, and (3) that defendants' conduct proximately caused plaintiff's deprivation. Coleman v. Frantz, 754 F.2d 719, 722, 725 (7th Cir. 1985); Crowder v. Lash, 687 F.2d 996, 1002 (7th Cir. 1982). Moreover, plaintiff must demonstrate that defendants acted with discriminatory intent as a prerequisite to establishing a prima facie case. Parker v. Board of School Commissioners, 729 F.2d 524, 528 (7th Cir. 1984). Once plaintiff makes out a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden then shifts to defendants to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for participating in the questioned conduct. If defendants do articulate such a reason, the burden shifts back to plaintiff to demonstrate that the proffered reason is merely a pretext for discrimination. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973); Griffin v. Board of Regents, 795 F.2d 1281 (7th Cir. 1986).

To understand how these legal requirements are applied to the series of events controlling the disposition of this lawsuit, the administrative organization at the Illinois State Museum must be laid out. The museum employs approximately 100 people on a full-time basis and 50 part time. The museum is managed by a director, who, in turn, is assisted by an assistant director. At the times relevant to this lawsuit, defendant Bruce McMillan was the director of the museum and his assistant was defendant Basil Hedrick. For administrative purposes, the museum is divided into six departments: anthropology, archaeology, art, botany, geology, and zoology. The director and his assistant manage the museum through these departments. One of these departments, the art department, was managed by defendant Robert Evans, who functioned as head of the department in his position as the curator of art. In addition to plaintiff, other employees serving under Evans in the art department included Steve Mercer, to whose position as a curatorial assistant plaintiff aspired, defendant Maureen McKenna, a curatorial assistant, and defendant Susan Pickel-Hedrick, also a curatorial assistant. The other defendant to this lawsuit, Judi Johnson, was a curatorial assistant in another department in the museum and did not work under the direction of defendant Evans. Johnson also served as the affirmative action officer for the museum.

Viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, this is what the evidence showed for each defendant with respect to the events that occurred between the time of Mercer's departure from the ...

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