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Snipes v. Illinois Dep't of Corrections

May 23, 2002

ROBERT SNIPES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE,
v.
ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT.



Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 96 C 137--Samuel P. King,*fn1 Judge.

Before Bauer, Posner and Easterbrook, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge.

Argued April 19, 2002

Robert Snipes initiated this suit, claiming discriminatory retaliation by the Illinois Department of Corrections in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e-3(a), for his complaints of racial discrimination while working as a correctional officer at the Department. The district court entered judgment in favor of the Department, finding that Snipes failed to prove that he was terminated in retaliation for his discrimination complaints. Snipes then filed this appeal, arguing that the district court erred in excluding and failing to consider evidence regarding the disparate treatment of other correctional officers under the Department's attendance policy. The Department cross-appealed, asserting that the district court abused its discretion in denying a bill of costs for $1785.00 submitted by the Department.

Background

Snipes was employed as a correctional officer at the Department from August 1988 to September 1991, when he was discharged for violating the Department's attendance policy eleven times (more than the threshold number for discharge under the policy). Within one hundred and eighty (180) days of his termination, Snipes filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. A "right to sue" letter was subsequently issued to Snipes by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In January of 1996, Snipes filed a pro se complaint against the Department. After receiving permission to proceed in forma pauperis, Snipes filed an amended complaint through court appointed counsel, claiming that he was discharged by the Department in retaliation for complaining about instances of race discrimination at the Department. The case proceeded to a bench trial, where the only issue ultimately before the court was whether the Department used its attendance policy as a pretext for terminating Snipes in retaliation for his complaints of racial discrimination.

In an effort to prove his retaliation claim, Snipes sought to introduce the disciplinary records of other correctional officers. The Department moved to exclude such evidence regarding the discipline given to and received by other correctional officers for violations of the Department's attendance policy. The Department argued that disparate disciplinary treatment of correctional officers by different supervisors in different time periods is irrelevant because disparate treatment is not an element of a retaliation claim. The court found that the lack of commonality in supervisors among those correctional officers disciplined for attendance violations rendered them incomparable and therefore irrelevant to Snipes' case.

At the conclusion of the trial, the court found that the evidence presented failed to establish a causal link between Snipes' statutorily protected expression (i.e., his complaints of racial discrimination) and the adverse employment action he suffered (i.e., his termination). Judgment was entered in favor of the Department.

Following the trial, the Department filed a timely motion for an award of costs. The bill of costs submitted by the Department sought $1785.00 for deposition and trial transcripts as well as for copying fees. In response, Snipes submitted a declaration detailing his financial status. After reviewing this information, the court determined that Snipes was indigent, and was presently and prospectively unable to pay the costs.

Discussion

A. Exclusion of Evidence

We review the district court's decision to exclude evidence under an abuse of discretion standard. United States v. Wilson, 159 F.3d 280, 290 (7th Cir. 1998). Our inquiry is not whether we would have ruled the same way, but rather whether any reasonable person would agree with the trial court. United States v. Johnson, 127 F.3d 625, 630 (7th Cir. 1997).

Where a plaintiff claims that he was disciplined by his employer more harshly than a similarly situated employee based on some prohibited reason, a plaintiff must show that he is similarly situated with respect to performance, qualifications and conduct. Radue v. Kimberly Clark Corp., 219 F.3d 612, 617 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). Such a showing normally entails establishing that "the two employees dealt with the same supervisor, were subject to the same standards, and had engaged in similar conduct without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances as would distinguish their conduct or the employer's treatment of them." Id. at 617-18 (citations omitted). Requiring that the plaintiff establish these similarities is simply common sense, as "[d]ifferent employment decisions, ...


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