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Clark v. Illinois Human Rights Commission

March 27, 2000


Petition for Review of an Order of the Illinois on Illinois Human Rights Commission ALS No. 7087 Charge No. 1992CA0945

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Tully

Petitioner, Stanley Clark, brought suit against defendant law firm, Rodriguez and Villalobos, alleging discrimination based on age and national origin in employment in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act *fn1 . 775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. (West 1996). An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that Clark provided sufficient evidence to sustain his claim and recommended an award in Clark's favor. The Illinois Human Rights Commission reversed the ALJ's recommended decision and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Clark now appeals pursuant to section 8-111 of the Human Rights Act (the Act) (775 ILCS 5/8-111 (West 1996)) and Supreme Court Rule 335 (155 Ill. 2d R. 335).

The central issue raised on appeal is whether the Commission's finding, that respondent's articulated reason for discharging Clark was not a pretext for discrimination, is against the manifest weight of the evidence. We answer this question in the negative and accordingly affirm the judgment of the Commission.

Rodriguez & Villalobos (the firm) was formed by the named partners in 1986 with assistance of Chicago United, a group of Fortune 500 corporations seeking to do business with a qualified minority law firm. In order to qualify as a minority owned enterprise, a business must comply with the requirements of the Business Enterprise for Minorities, Females, and Persons with Disabilities Act (Business Act) (30 ILCS 575/1, et. seq. (West 1996)) and be "at least 51% owned by one or more minority persons***and the management and daily business operations [must be] controlled by one or more of the minority individuals who own it." 30 ILCS 575/2(3) (West 1996). The stated purpose of the Business Act is to "promote and encourage the continuing economic development of minority and female owned and operated businesses and that minority and female owned and operated business participate in the State's procurement process as both prime and subcontractors." 30 ILCS 575/1 (West 1996). The Business Act specifically includes Hispanic individuals in its definition of "minority." 30 ILCS 575/2(A)(1)(b) (West 1996).

Clark joined the firm as an associate in 1988, after serving 15 years as a senior partner at Epton, Mullen & Druth. At the time of his hire, he was 58 years of age and his starting salary was $60,000.00 per year. Clark's national origins are American, German, English and Scottish. During his tenure at the firm, Clark worked on cases submitted by some of the firm's major clients, including the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the Chicago Board of Education and Allstate Insurance Company.

Clark was terminated on April 12, 1991. At the time of his discharge, the firm was comprised of twelve attorneys; five were Hispanic and seven were non-Hispanic. Eight of the twelve attorneys were over 40 years of age. He was not replaced and his work was distributed amongst six remaining attorneys.

At the hearing, Clark elicited testimony from former co-workers indicative of a general discriminatory animus prevalent at the firm. Jeffrey Trevino, an former associate at the firm, testified he had a conversation with one of the firm's senior attorneys, John Goudge (Welsh and German; mid-40's), in the fall of 1989 wherein Goudge stated that the firm's letterhead purposefully omitted the non-Hispanic attorneys' names. Because the firm represented itself as a minority law firm, its status as such might be compromised if non-Hispanic names appeared on the letterhead. Goudge further expressed the firm desired to hire more young attorneys who would be willing to work for less money than the older, more experienced attorneys. Trevino resigned from the firm in August, 1990.

Stanley Horn, a former affiliate, testified he had much the same conversation with Ray Rodriguez as Trevino recounted having with Goudge. Horn testified that the firm stationary omitted a mast head, a listing of associates working within the firm, because Rodriguez believed the inclusion of non-Hispanic names would impact the firm's identity as Hispanic. Furthermore, although it was his understanding he had achieved partnership status with the firm, his own name was never placed on the letterhead. Horn also testified that Rodriguez and Villalobos each remarked, at different times, that Clark was paid too much money and the firm wished to employ more Hispanic attorneys. On cross-examination, Horn recalled the firm received a complaint regarding Clark's billing practices during the summer of 1990, but could not recall the details of that complaint. Horn separated from the firm in September, 1990, and subsequently initiated litigation challenging the firm's disavowal of Horn's partnership status with the firm. At the time Horn rendered this testimony, he acknowledged his relationship with both named partners was contentious and an appeal surrounding the aforementioned litigation was pending.

Raul Villasuso, Jr., a former law clerk with the firm recalled a conversation with Goudge wherein Goudge told Villasuso he wanted Hispanic personnel working on the Chicago Board of Education business because it had been obtained as a result of the firm's minority enterprise business status. Goudge also told Villasuso he "fit the mold" for the type of employee the firm wanted working on those files. Villasuso testified he did not have any knowledge about complaints about Clark's billing practices. Villasuso was never employed by the firm in an attorney capacity. He is currently a partner at Horn & Villasuso.

Clark testified he was hired by the firm as a salaried associate with the promise of a partnership in the future. He stated he was never advised by Rodriguez there were complaints about his billing practices nor was he informed monetary adjustment had been made on past billings. He further testified he had no inkling he was going to be fired. He was completely stunned at what appeared to him a sudden turn of events.

Respondent presented evidence in support of its contention that Clark was discharged because his billing practices had generated numerous complaints with its clients.

Ray Rodriguez recalled specific complaints regarding Clark's billing practices. He stated that in July, 1989, the firm received a complaint from the CHA liaison disputing charges for telephone calls allegedly made by Clark and billed to the CHA over a period of eight months. The firm ultimately refunded $1,380 to the CHA. Both Rodriguez and Villalobos discussed this complaint with Clark, and instituted a review of Clark's billings before they were sent to the clients.

Again, in August or September 1989, the firm received a complaint letter from CHA which characterized Clark's billable hours as impossible and unrealistic. Rodriguez testified he again met with Clark to discuss the billing problems.

Villalobos also testified regarding Clark's billing practices. He recalled having received two complaints from insurance adjusters at Allstate in the summer of 1990. The first complaint alleged Clark had submitted a bill reflecting settlement negotiations with opposing counsel. However, that file had been settled by Villalobos himself and closed for approximately six months. Clark had not ever been assigned to work on the file. Then in August, a second complaint alleged Clark ...

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