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Johnson v. Human Rights Commission

December 26, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Mcnulty

Petition for Review of an Order of the Human Rights Commission

Annie Johnson sued Chicago-Read Mental Health Center (Read) for racial discrimination and retaliatory discharge. The Human Rights Commission (Commission) found that Johnson proved one claim for racial discrimination, but she failed to prove that Read discharged her either on the basis of racial discrimination or in retaliation for filing the complaint. Johnson appeals directly to this court pursuant to the Administrative Review Law (735 ILCS 5/3-101 et seq. (West 1998)).

Read hired Johnson in 1989. She received two promotions, so that in 1994 she worked as a "Mental Health Technician II." In the last performance evaluation she received before her discharge, her supervisor found that Johnson met or exceeded expectations in all categories for evaluation. The supervisor particularly noted that Johnson exceeded expectations for human relations, in that she helped maintain a cordial work climate that promoted harmony.

On August 18, 1994, a patient struck Johnson repeatedly when staff members denied the patient's request for a cigarette. The nurse in charge refused to put the patient in restraints, despite Johnson's request. As she left the unit to get a medical evaluation of her injuries, Johnson again encountered the patient.

The nurse in charge wrote a report accusing Johnson of threatening the patient as she left the unit. On November 9, 1994, Read conducted a pre-disciplinary meeting. Joan Bashaw-White, Read's labor relations administrator, and Vanda Sakalauskas, the assistant director of nursing, decided to suspend Johnson for 16 days, beginning on December 7, 1994. Johnson decided to complain to the Department of Human Rights about racial discrimination in the imposition of the sanction.

Read scheduled Johnson to work a double shift of 16 hours on November 26, 1994, as well as a regular shift the following day. Johnson asked the nurse in charge and the evening coordinator for permission to take her break for the second shift at the end of the shift, so that she could leave early. The nurse assigned her to watch a particular patient, one on one, during the second shift.

When any employee on a one-on-one assignment takes a break, the employee needs to arrange for a co-worker to cover for her by attending to the patient one on one for the duration of the break. Johnson left the hospital a half hour before the end of her second shift. She asked a co-worker to cover her one-on-one assignment, and the co-worker did so.

On December 14, 1994, Johnson, who is black, filed her complaint charging Read with racial discrimination in the imposition of the 16-day suspension. A few days after she returned to work following the suspension, Read suspended her again, this time pending discharge. Read claimed that Johnson's actions on November 26 warranted the discharge. Read discharged Johnson on January 11, 1995. Johnson amended her complaint to add claims that Read discharged her based on racial discrimination and in retaliation for the filing of the initial complaint.

The Human Rights Commission's administrative law judge (ALJ) heard evidence pertaining to both the suspension, based on the August incident, and the discharge, based on the November incident. In his recommended order he sharply distinguished between the two incidents. We, too, will treat the two incidents separately.

Regarding the August incident, Sakalauskas, who is not black, testified that she and Bashaw-White, who also is not black, relied on the findings of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). They accepted the OIG's finding that Johnson threatened the patient as the nurse in charge alleged.

Johnson presented evidence she made no such threat. Bashaw-White admitted that Read, with Bashaw-White's approval, suspended a nonblack technician for one day after the technician threw an ashtray at a patient.

The ALJ found that the report of verbal threats provided a nondiscriminatory reason for the suspension, but Johnson proved that the given reason served only as a pretext for racial discrimination. The far less severe punishment imposed on a comparable nonblack employee for more serious misconduct proved racial animus. The ALJ held that Johnson's alleged misconduct warranted at most a suspension for one day. Accordingly, he recommended awarding her wages for 15 days, plus attorney fees. The Human Rights Commission adopted the ALJ's recommendation. Read has not challenged the ruling. Insofar as it is part of the order from which the appeal formally arises, we affirm that part of the Commission's decision.

For the November incident, Read accused Johnson of neglect of duty and unauthorized absence for leaving before the end of her shift, and with insubordination and unprofessional conduct for cursing at a nurse. Dr. Thomas Simpatico, superintendent of Read, reviewed and approved Sakalauskas' and Bashaw-White's decision to discharge Johnson. He testified that the most serious charge, warranting severe discipline, was the charge that Johnson neglected her duty by leaving her one-on-one assignment without authorization.

Sakalauskas testified that she relied primarily on the written statement of the nurse in charge. That nurse wrote that Johnson demanded a late break, to end with the end of the shift at 10:45 p.m. When another nurse came to relieve her at 9 p.m., Johnson cursed at the nurse and refused to leave. The nurse in charge wrote that neither she ...

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