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HAWKINS v. GROOT INDUSTRIES

March 31, 2003

ANDERSON HAWKINS, LAWRENCE WOODFORK, ENRIQUE HERNANDEZ, AND JAVIER GUERRERO, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
GROOT INDUSTRIES, INC. AND GROOT RECYCLING AND WASTE SERVICES, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joan B. Gottschall, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

Plaintiffs Anderson Hawkins and Larry Woodfork have sued their former employer(s), Groot Industries, Inc. and Groot Recycling and Waste Services, Inc. (collectively "Groot"), for various violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.*fn1 In the first amended complaint, Hawkins and Woodfork, who are black men, specifically raise individual claims that (1) they were subjected to racial harassment and inferior terms and conditions at Groot; (2) they were subjected to racial discrimination with respect to discipline (and ultimately discharge) as well as promotions, work assignments, compensation, transfers, and other terms and conditions of employment; and (3) they were disciplined, harassed, and ultimately terminated in retaliation for opposing discrimination. In separate motions, Groot moved for summary judgment against Hawkins and Woodfork.*fn2 For the reasons explained below, Groot's motion for summary judgment against Hawkins is granted in part and denied in part, as is its motion for summary judgment against Woodfork.

Analysis

The standard for summary judgment is well-known. Summary judgment is proper if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show 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). In determining whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment, the court examines the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, drawing any reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). To avoid summary judgment, the party bearing the burden of proof on an issue must affirmatively show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). But the nonmovant's own deposition or affidavit may provide sufficient affirmative evidence to survive summary judgment. Courtney v. Biosound, Inc., 42 F.3d 414, 418 (7th Cir. 1994). "[U]nless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party," there is no issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Significantly, however, courts apply the summary judgment standard "with added rigor in employment discrimination cases, where intent and credibility are crucial issues." Courtney, 42 F.3d at 418 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Indeed, the Seventh Circuit has stated "that a grant of summary judgment which turns on the issue of discriminatory intent should be approached with special caution."' Id. at 423 (citations omitted).

With this standard in mind, the court examines Groot's motions for summary judgment against Hawkins and Woodfork.*fn3

I. Hostile Work Environment Claim

Hawkins and Woodfork both contend they were subjected to a racially hostile work environment at Groot created by their co-workers and supervisors.*fn4 To succeed on a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff "must show that (1) he was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on his race, (3) the harassment was severe [or] pervasive so as to alter the conditions of the employee's environment and create a hostile or abusive working environment; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability." Mason v. S. Ill. Univ., 233 F.3d 1036, 1043 (7th Cir. 2000). Groot argues for summary judgment on the grounds that neither Hawkins nor Woodfork were exposed to actionable harassment at Groot and even if they were, Groot is not legally responsible for such harassment. The court addresses each of these arguments in turn.

A. Actionable Harassment

1. Hawkins

Regarding Hawkins, Groot's chief argument is that Hawkins was able to testify only regarding a few specific harassing comments, and those few comments are insufficient to sustain a hostile work environment claim. The court disagrees.

Hawkins testified that his co-workers Bob Lewkowicz and Chris Lewkowicz, who are white, made racially derogatory comments every day in the drivers' room at Groot where the drivers were gathered before leaving on their routes. They repeatedly called Hawkins and other blacks "nigger," "monkey," "porch monkey," "f----g monkey," "chango" (a Spanish word for monkey), "Kobe Bryant," and "Buckwheat." Hawkins further testified these derogatory comments were made in the presence of Groot supervisors. Additionally, Hawkins testified that white supervisors contributed to the racially hostile work environment. According to Hawkins, supervisor Jim Dowling told him to watch his tan because he was getting darker, supervisor Tom Mayer called him "boy," and supervisor Craig Phillips said "Oh, I like that" when Bob Lewkowicz pretended to slap Hawkins.

Groot asserts that "Hawkins was unable to testify . . . that either of the Lewkowiczes ever made any specific comment on any specific day in the presence of any other particular persons, including supervisors." (Defs.' Mem. Supp. Summ. J. re Hawkins at 10.) This argument falters. Hawkins testified that he was subjected to racial epithets on a daily basis. Where a hostile work environment claim involves ongoing conduct, a plaintiff "need not date stamp every incident." Ferguson v. Chicago Housing Auth., 155 F. Supp.2d 913, 916-17 (N.D. Ill. 2001) (citing Dey v. Colt Constr. & Dev. Co., 28 F.3d 1446, 1457 (7th Cir. 1994)). While Hawkins' case undoubtedly would be stronger if he could provide more detail, his recollection as it stands raises a disputed issue of material fact regarding the level of racial hostility in the work environment at Groot. Weighing evidence and evaluating the credibility of witnesses are issues for the trier of fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

Groot also argues that the alleged comments made by the supervisors are not objectively racially offensive. Calling an adult black man "boy" strikes the court as an objectively, inherently offensive comment. A reasonable jury certainly could agree. Indeed, it is disconcerting that Groot suggests otherwise. Further, Hawkins' hostile work environment claim (regarding the conduct of both supervisors and co-workers) is buttressed by evidence from other drivers regarding the racial hostility of the work environment at Groot.*fn5 For example, plaintiffs offer the affidavits of Anthony Alexandria and Joseph Esposito, two white drivers formerly employed by Groot.*fn6 Alexandria attested that he heard Groot's white management employees, including Dowling, Phillips and C.J. Sturwold, call black employees "nigger" and "monkey." He further averred that Sturwold once said to him, "Anthony, we need to stick together because these black people can't do what we do." Likewise, Esposito attested that he heard other Groot employees routinely call black employees "monkeys" while members of Groot's management were present.

Although Groot argues to the contrary, such evidence is likely admissible as long as Hawkins was aware of those drivers' experiences while he was employed at Groot.*fn7 True, Hawkins must produce admissible evidence that he personally was subjected to discrimination. But in evaluating his hostile work environment claim, "the trier of fact must examine the totality of the circumstances, including evidence of harassment directed at employees other than the plaintiff."*fn8 Lewis v. Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Auth., No. 97 Civ. 0607, 2000 WL 423517, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 19, 2000) (citing Schwapp v. Town of Avon, 118 F.3d 106, 111-12 (2d Cir. 1997)); Smith v. Northeastern Ill. Univ., No. 98 C 3555, 2002 WL 377725, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 28, 2002). And although Groot fervently disputes the truth of those affidavits and other evidence, (see, e.g., Defs.' Resp. Pls.' Rule 56.1(b)(3)(B) Statement ("Defs.' Resp. Pls.' SDF") at ¶¶ 18-19), and argues that the testimony of various witnesses is contradictory, Groot's position simply reinforces the court's conclusion that a jury must evaluate the strength and weight of the evidence regarding this claim.

2. Woodfork

Groot raises the same arguments for summary judgment against Woodfork as it did against Hawkins: that his testimony was not specific or detailed enough to support a hostile work environment claim. For the reasons explained above, Woodfork also raises a genuine issue of material fact regarding the level of racial hostility he experienced at Groot.

Woodfork, like Hawkins, testified that the Lewkowiczes called him racially derogatory names on a daily basis, including "nigger," "f----g nigger," "monkey," "f----g monkey," "dumb nigger," "dumb monkey," and "chango." And like Hawkins, Woodfork testified that these racial slurs were made in the drivers' room where the drivers were assembled prior to leaving on their routes in the presence of Groot supervisors. Moreover, Woodfork's claim, like Hawkins, is bolstered by the experiences of other drivers.*fn9

Further, Woodfork's testimony expressly implicated both supervisors and coworkers. For example, Woodfork testified that in or around the spring of 1999, in response to comments he made about slavery, white supervisor Sturwold said, "Hey that was the good old days, huh?" (Woodfork Dep. at 117:17-22; Woodfork's Resp. Defs.' Statement Undisputed Facts ("SUF") at ¶ 149.) A few minutes later, Sturwold said "something to the effect that `Well, it's good it's not like that now and . . . there's no bias or no racism now and you don't have to worry about that now.' And he just sort of smiled and walked out, got in his truck, and left." (Woodfork Dep. at 119:6-14.) Earlier, in December 1998, white supervisor Phillips told Woodfork" that he could fire [Woodfork] for any reason. He could fire [Woodfork] if he didn't like the color of [Woodfork's] eyes." According to Woodfork, "Phillips raised his gaze from Woodfork's hands, to his chest, and then to his eyes while he made the comment." (Woodfork's Resp. Defs.' SUF at ¶ 147A.) Groot, offering a racially-neutral explanation ...


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