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LANG v. ILLINOIS DEPT. OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES

May 10, 2003

STEVEN LANG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Hibbler, United States District Court

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Steven Lang alleges that his employer, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., when it fired him from his job as a child protective investigator. According to Lang, DCS retaliated against him because he previously had filed charges of racial discrimination against the Department. DCFS, on the other hand, states that it terminated Lang because of his excessive, unauthorized absenteeism and it moves for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. DCFS also moves this Court to strike the pro se Plaintiff's Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts in its entirety because it tails to conform to the local rules or in the alternative to deem certain paragraphs of its 56.1 statement of facts admitted. For the following reasons, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion to Strike, GRANTS the Motion to Admit as to those paragraphs of the Defendant's Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts to which the Plaintiff either failed to reply at all or replied by stating "no comment," and DENIES the motion to admit as to the remaining facts. The Court GRANTS the Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background*fn1

Lang began working for DCFS, an agency in charge of the welfare of children in Illinois, in 1994 as a child welfare specialist. In 1999, after he received several favorable performance evaluations, Lang's supervisors recommended that he be promoted to the position of a child protective investigator. Child protective investigators evaluate and investigate initial referrals to DCFS of alleged physical and sexual abuse. DCFS assigned Lang to a Priority 1 investigative team, which handled cases involving severe neglect and abuse that were considered high risk, and his immediate supervisor was Karen Beckelman. Among other things, Lang's duties required him, and other Priority 1 team members, to meet so-called "mandates," requiring investigators to attempt to locate the endangered child and take steps to take them out of harm's way within 24 hours of receiving notice of the endangered child.

Shortly after completing his training to become a child protective investigator, Lang took a family responsibility leave beginning on December 16, 1999. Lang returned to work on February 7, 2000, and his troubles began shortly thereafter. On February 7, Beckelman informed Lang that he had only one pending case and that he should be sure to carry his pager with him on the following day in case the Priority 1 team secretary needed to contact him if a mandate needed to be met. Around 2:30 p.m. on February 8, 2000. Beckelman, asked the team secretary to assign a new case, which qualified as an urgent "mandate," to Lang. Lang phoned to say he was on his way into the office, but never returned to the office that day even though his time sheet later indicated that he worked until 4:00 p.m. Because Lang never followed up on the investigation assigned to him, the case had to be reassigned to another investigator. Beckelman grew suspicious of Lang's activity on February 8 because his itinerary showed only a single case visit at 9:00 a.m. and did not reflect his whereabouts after 10:30 a.m. Because of her suspicions, Beckelman issued Lang a memo directing him to submit evidence of his whereabouts on February 8. Another supervisor, Mary Ellen Eads, reported to Child Protection Manager Kathi Glenney that Lang had been "AWOL" most of the day and should receive an unauthorized absence. Eads further reported to Glenney that Lang was purportedly running a personal business during the work day. In an electronic mail to Glenney, Eads wrote that "we need to act quickly on this situation before he backs up with a lot of pendings as he did before, 2x week formal supervision, constant case reviews, etc. etc."

Beckelman scheduled an investigatory hearing regarding Lang's alleged dereliction of duty on February 8. At the February 15, 2000, investigatory hearing, Lang produced an affidavit signed by clients accounting for his whereabouts, and DCFS decided not issue an unauthorized absence. That same day, Lang filed charges of racial discrimination against DCFS with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. Lang, who is African-American, alleged that his supervisor, Karen Beckelman, paid him less than his white co-workers, refused to pay him overtime despite his working additional hours, and refused to issue the Plaintiff and other African-American employees cellular phones. Lang further alleged that Beckelman "contact(ed) my clients on several occasions to question them about my behavior and my time of arrival." Beckelman, however, did not learn of Lang's filing until March 27.

The events that followed the investigatory hearing reflect a decidedly contentious relationship between the parties. Lang's supervisors carefully and closely monitored his performance and issued blunt, voluminous and critical commentaries of his work. From the period between February 15 and March 24, Beckelman issued at least seven memos to Lang detailing work deficiencies ranging from failure to respond to pages or account for his whereabouts to failure to correct his work product to failure to follow orders. Beckelman also placed Lang on daily supervision and later issued "formal counselings" for failure to follow supervisor directives and complete work in a timely matter. During the same time period, Lang, on the other hand, engaged in a determined effort to justify his conduct.

In March 2000, Lang's attendance worsened. DCFS recorded Lang as having unauthorized absences on March 16 (Thursday). Lang never explained his March 16 absence, and when asked about his absence simply informed a supervisor at the office that he "wasn't here." The following Monday, March 20, 2000, Lang did not report to work and again failed to notify his supervisor of the reasons for his absence. This time Lang was absent from work the entire week, missing five consecutive days of work (March 20-24). Rather than inform his supervisor, Beckelman, that he would be absent, Lang instead chose to leave a voicemail message for Rick Navarro, a Labor Relations Liaison, stating that he had a family emergency and would be out of town for the week. When Lang returned to the office on March 27, Beckelman requested that he write a memo to explain why he failed to inform her of his absence. When Beckelman later asked Lang whether he was going to submit an explanation regarding his absences, he informed her that he would not. Because Lang never informed Beckelman that he would be absent and because he never offered an explanation for his absences, Beckelman recorded Lang's March 20-24 absences as unauthorized. Shortly after the March string of unauthorized absences, DCFS instituted disciplinary proceedings against Lang. On July 13, 2000, DCFS terminated Lang based on the six absences it had classified as unauthorized.

Lang appealed his discharge to the Illinois Civil Service Commission. The hearing officer found that DCFS had proven its charges that Lang had six unauthorized absences but reduced the discipline to a 90-day suspension. On December 1, 2000, Lang sued DCFS, alleging that his July 13 termination was in retaliation for his filing of the February 15 racial discrimination charges. The Plaintiff later Amended his Complaint, adding a claim for Equal Protection relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. On April 29, 2002, this Court granted the Defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. The Plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider, and on July 26, 2002, this Court reaffirmed its dismissal of the Equal Protection claim but withdrew its dismissal of the Title VII retaliatory discharge allegation.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper when "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); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (stating that "a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.") In considering a motion for summary judgment, courts construe facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986), A genuine issue of fact "exists only when a reasonable jury could find for the party opposing the motion based on the record as a whole." Pipitone v. United States, 180 F.3d 859, 861 (7th Cir. 1999).

The party opposing summary judgment bears the burden of bringing forward specific facts showing that a triable issue exists and "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The Court is required to grant summary judgment "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and which that party will bear the buxden at trial." Tatalovich v. City of Superior, 904 F.2d 1135, 1139 (7th Cir. 1990).

III. ANALYSIS

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are forbidden from retaliating against an employee who has accused the employer of a violation of the Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3 (a); Fine v. Ryan Int'l Airlines, 305 F.3d 746, 751 (7th Cir, 2002). The Seventh Circuit has recently made clear that a plaintiff may prove a claim of retaliation either by utilizing the direct method, under which the plaintiff produces evidence (either direct or circumstantial) sufficient to demonstrate a retaliatory intent or by utilizing the indirect burden-shifting method set forth initially in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817 (1973). Rogers v. City of Chicago, 320 F.3d 748, 753 (7th Cir. 2003) (distinguishing between the direct method and direct evidence); see also ...


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