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08/22/95 SOUTHERN ILLINOIS CLINIC v. ILLINOIS HUMAN

August 22, 1995

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS CLINIC, LTD., PETITIONER,
v.
ILLINOIS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION, PHYLLIS BAIN, AND JEANNIE O'DANIELL, RESPONDENTS.



Appeal from the Illinois Human Rights Commission. Nos. 1988 SF 0464 & 1988 SF 0465.

Honorable Richard P. Goldenhersh, J., Honorable Gordon E. Maag, P.j. Honorable Terrence J. Hopkins, J. Concurring

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Goldenhersh

JUSTICE GOLDENHERSH delivered the opinion of the court:

Respondents, Phyllis Bain and Jeannie O'Daniell (hereinafter complainants), filed complaints with the Illinois Department of Human Rights on March 17, 1988, alleging that petitioner, Southern Illinois Clinic, Ltd. (hereinafter the Clinic), unlawfully discriminated against them because of their age, when it discharged them on December 30, 1987. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 68, par. 2-102(a) (now 775 ILCS 5/2-102(a) (West 1994)).) After a public hearing, the administrative law judge (hereinafter judge) found in favor of complainants and awarded damages and attorney fees. The Clinic filed exceptions and complainants filed a response. Respondent, Illinois Human Rights Commission (the Commission), affirmed, adopted the recommended order and decision of the judge, and denied the Clinic's petition for rehearing. This cause comes to us upon the Clinic's petition for review pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 335 (134 Ill. 2d R. 335). The Clinic argues that (1) complainants failed to prove that their discharge was based upon their age, and (2) the finding of the trier of fact that the articulated nondiscriminatory reason for discharge was pretextual did not entitle complainants to a favorable decision but required that complainants put on additional evidence of discriminatory intent. We affirm.

I

Complainants were employed as telephone receptionists by theClinic before they were laid off on December 30, 1987, after approximately 15 years of service. Phyllis Bain was hired in 1971, and Jeannie O'Daniell was hired in March 1972. Bain was born on February 12, 1932, and was 55 years old at the time of her discharge. O'Daniell was born on February 18, 1930, and was 57 years old at the time of her discharge. Both were earning approximately $11,400 per year at the time they were terminated.

The Clinic was a medical corporation providing medical care to residents in the Mt. Vernon area. At the time of the hearing, Dr. Kenneth Peart, one of the Clinic's doctors and board members, was president and sole shareholder. The Clinic's Board of Directors was entirely comprised of doctors practicing at the Clinic. Prior to 1985, the Clinic employed between 17 and 20 physicians. By 1988, that number had dropped to only four physicians. Office visits of patients also declined during this period. In 1985, there were 45,303 office visits. In 1988, there were 25,456 office visits.

Around 1975, the reception area where complainants worked was reorganized into two areas. Complainants, along with Theresa Bell, who was also terminated on December 30, 1987, at the age of 41, no longer worked at the front desk, but in a small room connected to the front desk area. Those left at the front desk were required to file charts, answer the switchboard, and register patients. Those in a small room off to the side were called "telephone receptionists" and were required to answer the telephone and schedule appointments for patients to see doctors. When either group was not busy, they were to assist the other group in performing their tasks. It is generally accepted that both the receptionists and the telephone receptionists could perform each other's duties and did so occasionally.

Alice Dillon, Vickie Bledsoe, Anita McElroy, and Donna Overstreet worked as front desk receptionists and remained employed after complainants and Bell were dismissed. Alice Dillon and Vickie Bledsoe were in their 20's or 30's. Anita McElroy was in her 40's, and Donna Overstreet was 28. Alice Dillon was the supervisor of all the receptionists, including complainants and Bell. Ann Peart, Dr. Peart's wife, was hired to fill in temporarily after complainants and Bell were dismissed, in order to assist those who were not terminated on the proper protocol of their jobs. Connie Thomas, who had been terminated during an earlier layoff, was rehired after complainants were dismissed.

Jeannie O'Daniell testified that the Clinic provided its receptionists with good fringe benefits. Employees of the Clinic and their families received free medical care and hospitalization insurance. Additionally, employees who were employed at the Clinic for 10 yearsreceived two weeks of paid vacation. Employees employed more than 15 years received three weeks of paid vacation, and employees employed more than 20 years received four weeks of paid vacation. The Clinic also awarded bonuses of $25 per year of service. Both complainants received bonuses of $425 in December 1987. When they were terminated, complainants and Theresa Bell had the longest tenure of any of the receptionists. Overstreet and McElroy had the least tenure of any of the receptionists.

The Clinic did not routinely give its employees formal evaluations, and neither complainant ever received an unfavorable evaluation or was advised that her performance was unsatisfactory or needed improvement. It is generally agreed that all receptionists received complaints from doctors or patients at one time or another.

In early 1987, the Clinic laid off 11 employees. In late 1987, eight additional employees were laid off. Complainants were in the second group of persons laid off. Jim Swafford, the Clinic's administrator, told complainants that the Clinic was eliminating its reception department. Complainants were the receptionists with the most seniority. Dr. Peart testified as an adverse witness for the Clinic. He testified that it was Jim Swafford's decision to terminate complainants and that the Board of Directors just "rubber-stamped" Swafford's decision. Dr. Peart stated that complainants were dismissed in part because the department was being phased out and in part because there were too many employees. He stated that at the time of their dismissal he did not know how old complainants were and did not know how long they had worked for the Clinic. Swafford only began working for the Clinic in September 1987. Bain testified that she had little contact with Swafford. Swafford was not subpoenaed by either of the parties and did not testify at the hearing.

During the Clinic's presentation of evidence, Dr. Peart testified that complainants were fired because they were the worst employees working in the reception area. He testified that numerous complaints were made by patients and staff, including himself, against complainants. When it came time to lay people off due to a "downturn" in the number of patients' visits, complainants were chosen to be let go because they were the worst employees in that area. Dr. Peart testified that his wife was hired in order to "rehabilitate" the remaining employees.

On the other hand, complainants called several witnesses who testified that complainants were competent employees. For example, Pat Chelf, a nurse who was employed by the Clinic for almost 17 years, testified that both complainants did an excellent job in the reception area and that after their termination, the reception areadid not run smoothly but was "helter skelter." Lisa Austin, who worked as a nurse for the Clinic from 1984 through 1988, testified that she worked closely with ...


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