United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
February 23, 2004.
CAROL COOPER, Plaintiff,
JOHN E. POTTER, Postmaster General, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Defendant
The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARRY LEINENWEBER, District Judge
Plaintiff Carol Cooper ("Cooper") filed a one-count complaint against
Defendant United states Postal Service ("Postal Service") alleging racial
and gender discrimination based on her dismissal as a probationary letter
carrier. Cooper's claim arises under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, as amended, 42. U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. Before the Court is the
Postal Service's Motion for Summary Judgment filed pursuant to Rule 56 of
the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the following reasons, the
Postal Service's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.
Cooper, an African-American woman, was hired as a probationary
part-time letter carrier on October 24, 1998. Cooper was placed on a
90-day, probationary period, due to expire on January 20, 1999. Prior to
her probationary assignment, Cooper completed a two-week program that
included training in sorting and delivering mail.
Following training, Cooper was assigned to the Park Ridge Post Office
("Park Ridge"), from which she delivered mail on Route 49. Her supervisor
at Park Ridge was Thomas Hill ("Hill"), a white male. On January 15,
1999, Cooper was terminated from her probationary position.
The Postal Service contends that it terminated Cooper because of
significant performance deficiencies evident throughout her probationary
period. The Postal Service evaluates the work performance of probationary
carriers on several factors, including the time taken to deliver mail,
accuracy of mail collections, attendance, and safety. The Postal Service
notes that Cooper delivered mail to the wrong address, picked up mail
from a collection box not assigned to her route, failed to scan properly
two collection boxes, and arrived late for work several times. The Postal
service also notes that it advised Cooper of her poor performance
throughout the probationary period. Specifically, on November 24, 1998,
Hill gave Cooper a 30-day evaluation that provided an overall rating of
"Does Not Fully Meet Expectations at this Time." Hill also completed a
30-day, probationary evaluation report that gave Cooper unsatisfactory
ratings in three of six categories. In addition, on November 28, 1998,
another supervisor reported several problems with Cooper's performance,
including dropped mail, failure to follow instructions, and difficulty
locating homes. On December 23, 1998, Hill completed the 60-day
evaluation report with an overall rating of "Does Not Fully Meet
Expectations at this Time."
The Postal Service claims that Cooper's fatal flaws centered on her
failure to scan properly certain collection boxes on January 5, 9 and 14,
1999. In addition, Cooper also picked up mail from the wrong collection
box on January 5, 1999. The Postal Service outfits mail carriers with
wand-like devices used to scan each assigned collection box on a given
route. The battery-operated wand records the location of the collection
box and the time of scanning. When the carrier returns to the post
office, information is downloaded from the wand and a daily report is
generated to ensure that all mail collection boxes are accounted for. If
a collection box has not been scanned, someone must promptly return to
the collection box to ensure that the mail gets collected. The Postal
Service states that errors involving collection boxes are particularly
glaring because Price Waterhouse conducts ongoing audits monitoring the
timely delivery of mail from these boxes. Finally, the Postal Service
notes that it received customer complaints about Cooper's services during
her probationary period.
Cooper does not deny that the above incidents occurred. Nor does she
contend that the Postal Service's performance standards are objectively
unreasonable. Instead,' Cooper claims that her difficulties were typical
of other probationary carriers, and thus
her performance "was no more detrimental to the USPS than the other
probationary" carriers. In addition, Cooper claims that the Postal Service
failed to provide her with adequate training to allow her to succeed
during the probationary period. In essence, Cooper argues that the Postal
Service singled her out for discriminatory reasons, while retaining other
similarly deficient employees outside of her protected class. Moreover,
Cooper contends that Hill effectively sabotaged her ability to succeed
by, among other things, refusing to provide additional training or
required instructions, unfairly accusing Cooper of misdeeds, and failing
to provide required equipment. As proof of Hill's discriminatory animus,
Cooper claims that Hill changed a "satisfactory" rating on her 60-day
evaluation to "unacceptable" after she was terminated. (The Postal
Service admits that Hill "added new information" to Cooper's 60-day
evaluation by adding a designation of "unacceptable" to a category
previously marked as satisfactory.)
II. LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Summary Judgment
Summary judgment is appropriate 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 a judgment as a matter of law." FED.
R. CIV. P. 56(c). A fact is "material" if it could affect the outcome of
the suit under the
governing law; a dispute is "genuine" where the evidence is such that a
reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Andersen
v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).
The burden is initially upon the movant to demonstrate the absence of a
genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317,
323 (1986). In assessing the movant's claim, the court must view all the
evidence and any reasonable inferences that may be drawn from that
evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Miller v. Am.
Family Mut. Ins. Co., 203 F.3d 997, 1003 (7th Cir. 2000). Once the moving
party has met its burden, the nonmoving party "may not rest upon the mere
allegations" contained in its pleading, but rather "must set forth
specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." FED. R.
CIV. P. 56(e); Becker v. Tenenbaum-Hill Assoc., Inc., 914 F.2d 107, 110
(7th Cir. 1990); Schroeder v. Lufthansa German Airlines, 875 F.2d 613, 620
(7th Cir. 1989). The nonmovant "must do more than simply show that there
is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec.
Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In the
employment discrimination context, summary judgment against a plaintiff
is warranted where "the evidence, interpreted favorably to the
plaintiff, could [not] persuade a reasonable jury that the employer had
discriminated against the plaintiff." Palucki v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.,
879 F.2d 1568, 1570 (7th Cir. 1989).
B. Title VII
Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to terminate or otherwise
to discriminate against an employee based on race, color, religion, sex,
or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). A plaintiff may prove
unlawful employment discrimination through either direct evidence or via
the indirect burden shifting approach set forth in McDonnell Douglas
Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Here, Cooper proceeds under the
indirect method and therefore must first establish a prima facie case of
discrimination by demonstrating that she (1) was a member of a protected
class, (2) performed her job according to Defendant's legitimate
expectations, (3) suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) was
treated less favorably than similarly situated employees outside of her
protected class. See, e.g., Markel v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of
Wise. Sys., 276 F.3d 906, 910 (7th Cir. 2002); Gordon v. United Airlines,
Inc., 246 F.3d 878, 885-86 (7th Cir. 2001). If Cooper can show that
"there is some evidence from which one can infer that the employer took
adverse action against the plaintiff on the basis of a statutorily
proscribed criterion," Leffel v. Valley Fin. Servs., 113 F.3d 787, 793
(7th Cir. 1997), a presumption of discrimination arises, and the Postal
Service must produce evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason
for her termination. Gordon, 246 F.3d at 886.
The Postal Service initially argues that Cooper cannot establish a
prima facie case under Title VII because the undisputed facts show that
she did not perform her job according to the Postal Service's legitimate
expectations. To establish a prima facie case under Title VII, Cooper
must show that her "performance was of sufficient quality to merit
continued employment." Flowers v. Crouch-Walter Corp., 552 F.2d 1277,
1283 (7th Cir. 1977). An employer's performance expectations need not be
reasonable; an employer may freely set unreasonable expectations and fire
an employee for failing to meet these admittedly unreasonable standards.
See Palucki v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 879 F.2d 1568, 1571 (7th Cir.
1989); Sampson v. Federal Express Corp., 1996 WL 568792, *3-4 (N.D. Ill.
1996). However, the employer's expectations must be legitimate, rather
than a mere cover for discrimination. See id. When the undisputed facts
demonstrate that the employee has failed to meet an employer's legitimate
standards, summary judgment in favor of the employer is appropriate. See
Lim v. Trustees of Indiana Univ., 297 F.3d 575, 581 (7th Cir. 2002).
As noted above, the Postal Service delineates a series of incidents
that indicate performance "marred with deficiencies" and non-conformance
with the standards outlined in the Postal Service Carriers Handbook. The
Postal Service notes incidents of tardiness, difficulty delivering mail,
including excessive delivery
times, and improper scanning of three collection boxes in less than
two weeks in January 1999. In particular, the Postal Service claims that
"missing a collection box [is] a serious matter and grounds for removal,"
and notes that Hill terminated a white male probationary carrier for
missing a single collection box.
As noted above, Cooper concedes that her performance, for the most
part, did not conform with the required standards. Cooper also does not
disagree with, in principle, the expected performance standards outlined
by the Postal Service. Thus, Cooper cannot satisfy her prima facie
requirement of showing that her performance met the legitimate
expectations of the Postal Service.
However, Cooper may exempt herself from this requirement by showing
that the Postal Service enforced its performance standards in a
discriminatory fashion. That is, Seventh Circuit authority holds that an
employee does not need to show that she met an employer's legitimate
expectations if she establishes that the employer selectively disciplined
her based on race (or other prohibited factors). See, e.g., Curry v.
Menard, Inc., 270 F.3d 473, 477-78 (7th Cir. 2001); Flores v. Preferred
Technical Group, 182 F.3d 512, 515 (7th Cir. 1999). In essence, this
inquiry merges the second and fourth prongs of the McDonell Douglas
analysis, and requires Cooper to show that the Postal Service did not
terminate (or otherwise favor) similarly-situated employees outside of
Cooper's protected class for equally-poor performance. See Peele
v. Country Mut. Ins. Co., 288 F.3d 319, 329 (7th Cir. 2002). An employee
is similarly situated to Cooper if she "is directly comparable to [the
plaintiff] in all material aspects." Rogers v. City of Chicago,
320 F.3d 748, 754 (7th Cir. 2003). This burden "normally entails
establishing that the two employees dealt with the same supervisor, were
subject to the same standards, and had engaged in similar conduct."
Snipes v. Illinois Dept. of Corrections, 291 F.3d 460, 463 (7th Cir.
Here, Cooper fails to satisfy this burden because she does not
establish that the Postal Service retained any similarly situated, but
equally deficient, probationary employees. Cooper attempts to meet this
burden by identifying Jason Carr ("Carr"), a white male probationary
part-time letter carrier, who purportedly "delivered mail to the wrong
address" and had delivery times longer than Cooper's, but nevertheless
was retained by the Postal Service. However, Cooper's sole evidentiary
support for Carr's performance is her own deposition testimony, which
Cooper fails to attach to her Memorandum of Law or Local Rule 56.1
Statement of Additional Facts (and only a portion of such testimony is
contained in the deposition transcript submitted by the Postal Service).
Because Cooper's submissions do not conform with Local Rule 56.1, this
Court need not afford them any significance. See, e.g., Flaherty v. Gas
Research Institute, 31 F.3d 451, 453 (7th Cir. 1994).
Even if the Court chose to consider Cooper's allegations here, they
still fail for at least two reasons. First, Cooper admitted that she
could not identify any other retained probationary letter carrier who
improperly retrieved mail from a collection box not on his/her route, or
a probationary carrier who missed assigned collection boxes. Second, the
entirety of Cooper's evidence is her own deposition testimony containing
nothing more than her own conclusory, unsupported allegations pertaining
to Carr's performance. This "evidence" cannot meet Cooper's summary
judgment burden. See, e.g., Albiero v. City of Kankakee, 246 F.3d 927,
933 (7th Cir. 2001). Rather, Cooper must establish sufficient facts, with
suitable evidentiary support, to be able to show that Carr was a
similarly situated employee. See Johnson v. G.A.T.X. Logistics, Inc.,
2001 WL 1568883, *3 (N.D. Ill. 2001). Cooper has failed to do so. (The
Court does not address the other two employees that Cooper claims are
similarly situated because Cooper identifies these employees by first
name only and fails to offer any specifics of their job performance.
Therefore, these allegations fail for the same reasons as stated above.)
In sum, even when construed in a light most favorable to Cooper, the
evidence here cannot establish that Cooper either met the Postal
Service's legitimate expectations or that the Postal Service applied its
expectations in a discriminatory fashion. Because the Court finds that
Cooper cannot establish a prima facie
case, it need not address Defendant's other grounds for summary
For the reasons set forth above, Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment is GRANTED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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