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02/09/87 Pioneer Life Insurance v. Jeffrey Woodard

February 9, 1987





504 N.E.2d 230, 152 Ill. App. 3d 236, 105 Ill. Dec. 361 1987.IL.145

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County; the Hon. John W. Nielsen, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE INGLIS delivered the opinion of the court. LINDBERG, P.J., and WOODWARD, J., concur.


The defendant, Jeffrey Woodard, appeals from the trial court's order which reversed the Illinois Human Rights Commission's finding of racial discrimination. No questions are raised on the pleadings. Defendant's sole issue on appeal is whether the trial court's decision is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. We affirm the trial court.

Defendant, who is black, filed a discrimination charge with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that his former employer, Pioneer Life Insurance Company of Illinois (Pioneer), terminated him on the basis of his race. The Illinois Department of Human Rights filed its complaint with the Human Rights Commission (Commission). A public hearing was convened for this matter before an administrative law Judge for the Commission. The pertinent facts follow.

Defendant was hired by Pioneer on a part-time basis on July 13, 1981, as a file clerk in the mailroom. He was promoted to a full-time day shift position approximately one month later. After two months, on October 12, 1981, defendant was assigned to be trained for the position of new claims setup.

Karen Parks and Julie Larson, who were promoted to full-time positions around the same time as defendant, were trained on new claims setup by a person who was to be promoted from that station, as is customarily done. Consistent with this custom, Debra Nalewanski, defendant's supervisor, assigned Ms. Parks to train defendant in the position. She trained defendant for approximately three days. Ms. Parks approached the supervisor, Ms. Nalewanski, and informed her that there were problems with regard to defendant's training. She felt that defendant was not concentrating and was not getting the job done.

Pursuant to these representations, Ms. Nalewanski met with defendant and Ms. Parks. Within 24 hours, Ms. Parks again spoke to Ms. Nalewanski about the same problems and that she could not continue her training. As a result, Ms. Nalewanski removed Ms. Parks from the assignment and asked Ms. Larson to train defendant. After spending two or three days training with defendant, Ms. Larson also experienced problems with him. Ms. Nalewanski then placed defendant on probation as a result of these problems on October 20, 1982, for a two-week period. She continued to train defendant herself.

Defendant claimed that Ms. Parks had a negative attitude toward training him, she refused to train defendant, and slammed the files down on the desk. Defendant also testified that Ms. Larson made negative remarks toward defendant, calling him "boy." Defendant sent a letter to Mr. Ron LaPorta, the department manager, as a result of being placed on probation, requesting that he be allowed to meet with him. The letter was sent without Ms. Nalewanski's knowledge as defendant's immediate supervisor.

On October 26, 1981, defendant was called into Mr. LaPorta's office. Defendant was cautioned against circumventing the chain of command, complaining to Mr. LaPorta instead of Ms. Nalewanski. Defendant was also reminded that he had to be at his work station at 8 a.m. Defendant was fired at this meeting.

Defendant denied that Ms. Nalewanski was present, although Ms. Nalewanski testified otherwise. Defendant denied any knowledge of the company's chain-of-command policy. He also denied that he was warned to stop raising his voice or he would be terminated for insubordination. The hearing Judge found that defendant became upset and raised his voice after he was terminated. Pioneer maintained otherwise.

The ALJ found that defendant established a prima facie case because he set forth evidence which raised an inference of discrimination. The ALJ focused her decision on testimony given by Genevieve Zimmerman. She was, according to the ALJ's recommended order and decision, not only defendant's co-worker but also his "live-in" girlfriend. She is white. The ALJ stated that "[s]hortly before [defendant's] termination by Mr. LaPorta, Ms. Zimmerman was questioned as to her relationship with [defendant] by Mr. LaPorta." She related that defendant was her boyfriend. Before this, Mr. LaPorta and Ms. Zimmerman had a "very good relationship." Although not his secretary, Ms. Zimmerman was "often" requested to do work for him. He "would at times invite" Ms. Zimmerman to have lunch with him. "Generally, Ms. Zimmerman and Mr. LaPorta had been on very friendly terms." After the inquiry as to her relationship with defendant, the "relationship" between Ms. Zimmerman and Mr. LaPorta "changed radically." Mr. LaPorta "ceased to give" his work to Ms. Zimmerman and gave all his work to a different secretary. He stopped "inviting Ms. Zimmerman to go to lunch, and stopped having even casual conversations with Ms. Zimmerman." Then "[s]trange things began to happen to Ms. Zimmerman" after the inquiry. Her new IBM Selectric Typewriter was replaced by an old electric typewriter that did not work. The ALJ also found:

"Shortly after the inquiry regarding the relationship between Ms. Zimmerman and [defendant], the [defendant] was terminated by Mr. LaPorta for the stated reason of insubordination. This occurred notwithstanding the fact that Ms. Nalewanski was [defendant's] immediate supervisor and in fact should have been responsible for the discipline administered to [defendant].

Because such facts if otherwise unexplained raise an inference of discrimination, [Pioneer] is required to articulate legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for the actions ...

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