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PALMER v. CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY

October 30, 1995

MARQUITA PALMER, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY, SOCIAL SERVICE DEPARTMENT, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CASTILLO

 This case is about a serious personality dispute between an employee, her supervisor and her fellow workers. Plaintiff, Marquita Palmer ("plaintiff"), sues defendant, the Circuit Court of Cook County, for race and disability discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seq., respectively. Plaintiff alleges that she was suspended and terminated from her employment with the defendant, the Circuit Court of Cook County, due to her race and mental illness. Defendant maintains that plaintiff was terminated due to a pattern of misconduct involving threatening statements. Defendant moves for summary judgment on both Count I, race discrimination, and Count II, disability discrimination. For the reasons that follow, defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted on both counts.

 BACKGROUND1

 Plaintiff, Marquita Palmer, is an African-American woman who was employed by the Circuit Court of Cook County from about October 1990, through on or about September 28, 1993. (Defendant's Rule 12(M) Statement of Uncontested Facts PP 1, 9). In October of 1990, plaintiff was hired by the Social Service Department as a court liaison at Traffic Court and worked there until September of 1992. (Rule 12(M) PP 6, 7).

 On May 29, 1992, plaintiff received a written warning from her supervisor, Sharon Welch, a Caucasian woman. The warning described three incidents in which plaintiff "made abusive personal and profane statements to a fellow employee." (Written Warning dated May 29, 1992). Soon after, Clara Johnson, an African-American woman, became plaintiff's supervisor at Traffic Court in June of 1992. (Rule 12(M) P 8, 10).

 Despite this warning, another dispute between the plaintiff and a different co-worker arose on August 17, 1992. Although no one except the plaintiff observed plaintiff's co-worker, Nicki Lazzaro, a Caucasian woman, threaten plaintiff with bodily harm, several witnesses observed the plaintiff verbally threaten Ms. Lazarro. (Aff. of Johnson, Aff. of Lazzaro, Aff. of Castaneda, Aff. of Rhames). Plaintiff admits that she made the following statement to Nicki Lazzaro on the date in question, "Nicki, look, if you don't leave me alone, I'm going to throw you out the window." (Dep. of Palmer at 64.). However, despite witness testimony to the contrary, plaintiff maintains that Ms. Lazzaro struck and pushed her without provocation. (Aff. of Palmer, Aff. of Johnson, Aff. of Lazzaro, Aff. of Castaneda, Aff. of Rhames). Plaintiff was suspended from the Circuit Court for ten days following the incident with Ms. Lazzaro. Within the suspension letter, the Director of the Social Services Department, Chelsea Pollock, Jr., noted that three other recent, documented occasions (July 22, 29, and 31, 1992) in which plaintiff made "inappropriate and unprofessional remarks" to Ms. Lazzaro were also being taken into account in authorizing the ten-day suspension. (Suspension Letter dated August 19, 1992). Plaintiff argues that she was unfairly treated by her supervisor, Clara Johnson, with respect to the incident since she was disciplined while Ms. Lazzaro was not.

 On September 1, 1992, Plaintiff allegedly made an "inappropriate and unprofessional remark" to Clara Johnson. Due to the recurrent misconduct, plaintiff was suspended for another seven days. (Suspension Letter dated September 14, 1992). Upon her return to work, plaintiff was transferred to the 26th and California building, where Dawn Bushma became her supervisor. (Rule 12(M) PP 16, 17). Despite the transfer, plaintiff unfortunately still came into contact with her former supervisor, Clara Johnson. (Rule 12(M) P 18). On March 5, 1993, plaintiff encountered Clara Johnson in the hall at 26th Street, where Ms. Johnson asked plaintiff about some court memos. (Rule 12(M) PP 18, 19). While the parties disagree as to what exactly took place in the hallway, it is undisputed that plaintiff did not attend work the following Monday due to the confrontation. (Rule 12(M) P 20). On or about March 24, 1993, plaintiff took an extended leave of absence to attend an out-patient program for mental illness. (Am. Compl. P 18). At this time, plaintiff was prescribed an antipsychotic medication to treat her paranoid delusions. (Letter from Dr. Robert A. Channon dated July 29, 1993).

 On April 6, 1993, plaintiff's therapist, Marcy Axelband, telephoned plaintiff's immediate supervisor, Dawn Bushma, to request a meeting with plaintiff, Ms. Bushma, and Ms. Johnson. (Dep. of Axelband at 23). While there is a dispute between the parties as to what exactly was to be discussed at the meeting, Ms. Axelband stated that the meeting was scheduled for the purpose of resolving some Of the conflict so that plaintiff could return to work "with more comfort than clearly she was having currently."

 (Dep. of Axelband at 23-24). However, Dawn Bushma called plaintiff's therapist back and stated that the department would not meet with her. (Rule 12(M) P 23).

 After receiving the news that the department was not willing to meet, plaintiff telephoned the Traffic Court several times on or about April 7 and 8, 1993. *fn2" Specifically, plaintiff telephoned Clara Johnson and called her a "bitch." (Rule 12(M) P 25). In another conversation, plaintiff telephoned Carmen Castaneda, an ex-coworker from Traffic Court, and stated that she was "so sick" of Clara Johnson she "could just kill her" and that Clara Johnson "would be better off dead." (Rule 12(M) PP 26, 27). In yet another conversation, plaintiff telephoned Nicki Lazzaro and called her a "bitch" also. (Rule 12(M) P 28). Based on plaintiff's inappropriate behavior in telephoning the Traffic Court, Ms. Axelband felt plaintiff was a danger to others and initiated involuntary commitment proceedings. (Rule 12(M) P 30, Dep. of Axelband at 34, Dep. of Axelband Exh. 2). Plaintiff remained an inpatient at Michael Reese Hospital until July 1, 1993. (Am. Compl. P 23). The diagnosis of plaintiff while a patient at Michael Reese Hospital was "(1) Delusional (paranoid) disorder[, and] (2) Major Depression." (Letter from Dr. Robert A. Channon dated July 29, 1993).

 On July 1, 1993, Mr. John E. Bentley, Director of the Social Service Department, wrote plaintiff to inform her that her employment with the Social Service Department had been terminated effective July 1, 1993. (Termination Letter dated July 1, 1993). The reason given for plaintiff's termination was as follows:

 
Your employment record over the last year reflects a pattern of abusive behavior. Based on your inappropriate actions on April 7th and 8th, and in light of your past record and our warnings that future occurrences would result in more serious disciplinary actions including termination of employment, your employment with the Social Service Department is terminated effective July 1, 1993.

 (Termination Letter dated July 1, 1993). However, in a letter dated August 19, 1993, Mr. Michael J. Rohan, Director of Probation and Court Services for the Circuit Court of Cook County, informed Ms. Palmer's attorney, at the time, that:

 
Based on Ms. Palmer's seniority with Cook County, she was eligible to receive medical disability up to September 28, 1993. Therefore, I will direct Mr. Bentley, or his designee, to process the necessary paperwork to reinstate Ms. Marquita Palmer, without pay, for the purpose of allowing her to be eligible to receive her disability benefits through their expiration date.

 (Letter to Mr. Flynn dated August 19, 1993). Upon the expiration of plaintiff's disability benefits in September of 1993, however, Mr. Rohan affirmed Mr. Bentley's decision to terminate plaintiff's employment with the Circuit Court of Cook County. (Letter to Mr. Flynn dated November 3, 1993).

 On or about June 6, 1994, Plaintiff received a right to sue letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. (Rule 12(M) P 3). Plaintiff filed the instant complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois within 90 days from receipt of her right to sue letter. (Rule 12(M) P 4). Jurisdiction of this Court is invoked pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. This action is brought pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seq.

 DISCUSSION

 I. Summary Judgment Standard

 Summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party has the initial burden of establishing that there is no genuine issue of material fact. A material question of fact is a question which will be outcome determinative of an issue in the case. The Supreme Court has instructed that the facts material in a specific case shall be determined by the substantive law controlling the given case or issue. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). Once the moving party has met their burden, the opposing party must go beyond the pleadings and set forth specific facts in affidavits or otherwise show that there is a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 321-327, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). The opposing party "must present affirmative evidence in order to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment and may not rest upon allegations or denials of the pleadings." Valentine v. Joliet Township High School Dist., 802 F.2d 981, 986 (7th Cir. 1986); see also Hughes v. Joliet Correctional Center, 931 F.2d 425, 428 (7th Cir. 1991). The court must view all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Bowyer v. U.S. Dept. of Air Force, 804 F.2d 428, 430 (7th Cir. 1986). However, if the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-250. In making its determination, the Court's sole function is to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to support a verdict in the nonmovant's favor, "whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Id. at 250.

 At the outset, it is important, since plaintiff is currently representing herself on a pro se basis, *fn3" to indicate what this case is not about. In resolving disputes in the workplace, this Court does not sit as a "super-personnel department that reexamines an entity's business decisions." McCoy v. WGN Continental Broadcasting Co., 957 F.2d 368, 373 (7th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). Additionally, the role of the Court is not to determine if the plaintiff was treated fairly. "It is well-settled in [the Seventh Circuit] and other circuits that an employer may terminate an employee for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all, as long as the employer's reason is not proscribed by a Congressional statute." Kahn v. United States Secretary of Labor, 64 F.3d 271 (7th Cir. 1995). "An employee's insubordination toward supervisors and coworkers" even if simply perceived rather than real, "is justification for termination." Id. Thus "no matter how medieval a firm's practices, no matter how highhanded its decisional process, no matter how mistaken the firm's managers," this Court simply may not judge the conduct of Ms. Palmer's supervisors and co-workers apart from the ...


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