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ISRAEL v. POTTER

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois


March 19, 2004.

Isaiah Israel, Plaintiff
v.
John E. Potter, Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service, Defendant

The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES HOLDERMAN, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On May 1, 2003, plaintiff Isaiah Israel ("Israel") filed a second amended complaint, which this court accepted on May 2, 2003, against defendant John E. Potter ("Potter"), Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service ("USPS"), alleging race discrimination, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), and retaliation, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). On January 8, 2004, Potter moved to dismiss Israel's complaint or alternatively for summary judgment. Because it appears the parties have done so and because this court has considered the material submitted and has not restricted its review to the face of the complaint, this court will address Potter's motion exclusively as one for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Having considered this matter fully, for the reasons stated herein, Potter's motion for summary judgment is granted. Page 2

STATEMENT OF FACTS*fn1

  Viewing all facts in the light most favorable to Israel and construing all ambiguities in his favor, Israel, an African American male, worked as a clerk with the USPS from 1990 until he retired in December 2001. In 1993, Israel filed an administrative complaint alleging discrimination on the part of his supervisor Kevin Haywood ("Haywood"), an African American, for allegedly removing Page 3 Israel's workplace stool, Israel did not pursue this administrative complaint. In May 1997, Israel filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") claiming that race discrimination was the reason Jasper Grimaudo ("Grimaudo") issued Israel a seven-day suspension for failing to maintain a regular work schedule. *fn2 Israel also filed another Page 4 administrative complaint against Grimaudo in December 1998 claiming that Grimaudo ordered Israel to move his workplace stool.

  In August 1999, Israel filed further administrative claims against Haywood and Grimaudo. These complaints were consolidated and proceeded to a hearing before EEOC administrative law judge ("ALJ") Winston Jackson on August 30, 2002. The hearing was restricted to seven incidents, which will be discussed below. ALJ Jackson found that Israel was neither discriminated against nor retaliated against.

  On August 19, 1999, Israel's supervisor Jesse Parham ("Parham"), an African American, ordered Israel to report to work at Building 10 at the Chicago Bulk Mail Facility. Israel was not the only USPS employee ordered to report to work at Building 10, and the USPS routinely assigned employees to work at that location, based on personnel requirements. However, on that date, Israel questioned *fn3 Parham's order. Israel believed that employees with less seniority than him should have been required to report to Building 10 instead of him. United States Postal Standards of Conduct require a USPS employee to follow a supervisor's order; if the employee questions or disagrees with the order, the employee must grieve the order to his or her union at a later time. Although Israel questioned the order from Parham, and presumably violated USPS rules by doing so, he was only threatened with disciplinary action and not actually disciplined. In addition, Israel had not filed an administrative complaint against Parham prior to August 1999.

  On August 25, 1999, supervisor Haywood ordered Israel to report to work at Building 10. Israel again questioned this assignment order. Consequently, Israel was placed on emergency off-duty Page 5 (non-pay) status. However, the discipline was later rescinded through the union grievance process, and Israel received back pay for the time he was on emergency status.

  Later, in September 1999, Haywood again ordered Israel to report to work at Building 10. Israel once again questioned this order. On October 2, 1999, Israel's immediate supervisor, Chris Stubblefield ("Stubblefield"), an African American male, issued Israel a letter of warning for Israel's failure to report to work as ordered by Haywood. Israel grieved this disciplinary letter to the union, but the discipline was upheld.

  In February 2000, supervisor Zelma Skillom ("Skillom"), an African American female, issued Israel a seven-day suspension for taking unauthorized 15-minute breaks during every hour of his work shift. Israel's union contract only allowed him two 15-minute rest breaks and a half-hour lunch period during his work shift.*fn4 Israel claims that he was told by William Walker ("Walker"), who was informed by labor relations specialist Arthur Reed ("Reed"), that employees could take the 15-minutes rest periods every hour to keep employees from injuring themselves. Israel admits that Page 6 he never filed an administrative complaint against Skillom prior to February 2000. After grieving the suspension to his union, Israel's suspension was upheld.

  In January 2001, Israel accepted a light duty assignment with the USPS. On February 8, 2001,*fn5 Israel stopped coming to work. On March 12, 2001, Israel received a letter from supervisor Eugene Stancil ("Stancil") asking Israel to explain his absences from work since February 8, 2001. This letter also advised Israel that he would be terminated due to being AWOL unless he submitted appropriate medical information or immediately reported back to work. Prior to this letter, Israel had not filed an administrative complaint against Stancil. Later in 2001, Israel took disability retirement and was not terminated.

  Finally, Israel claims that he was denied continuation of pay ("COP") payments for a period of time after January 1, 2001.*fn6 He claims he was denied such benefits as a result of Celestine Johnson's ("Johnson"), an African American female, retaliation against Israel for filing an EEOC claim against her. However, Israel had not filed an EEOC claim against Johnson prior to January 1, 2001.

  STANDARD OF REVIEW

  Under Rule 56(c), 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 a judgment as a matter Page 7 of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the nonmovant must be believed and all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the nonmovant's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). This court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. A party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue, however, may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). In considering a motion for summary judgment, this court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat a motion for summary judgment; the nonmoving party must identify with reasonable particularity the evidence upon which that party relies. Johnson v. Cambridge Indus. Inc., 325 F.3d 892, 898 (7th Cir. 2003); Bombard v. Fort Wayne Newspapers. Inc., 92 F.3d 560, 562 (7th Cir. 1996). The evidence relied upon must be competent evidence of a type otherwise admissible at trial. Stinnett v. Iron Works Gym/Executive Health Spa. Inc., 301 F.3d 610, 613 (7th Cir. 2002).

  ANALYSIS

  Israel advances two claims. First, he asserts that the USPS discriminated against him because of his race. Second, Israel claims that the USPS retaliated against him after he complained to the EEOC. These will be discussed in turn. Prior to addressing the merits of Israel's claims, however, this court must clarify what is properly before it. Only the claims specified in the October 7, 2002, "Notice of Final Action," which was attached to Israel's original complaint, are before this court. All other claims are time-barred or have not been filed with the appropriate administrative agency. Therefore, the following seven instances of alleged discrimination and/or retaliation will be Page 8 addressed below: (1) on August 19, 1999, Israel was threatened with disciplinary action and removal; (2) on August 25, 1999, Israel was placed in an emergency off-duty status; (3) on October 2, 1999, Israel was issued a letter of warning; (4) on February 20, 2000, Israel was issued a notice of a seven-day suspension; (5) on March 12, 2001, Israel was threatened with termination; (6) Israel was determined to be off work without medical documentation; and (7) on March 9, 2001, Israel's COP was denied. These were the same issues before the EEOC administrative law judge on August 30, 2002. (Def.'s Exs. in Supp., Ex. 2 at 5.) Although Israel spends considerable time discussing other incidents, for example, the May 1997 and December 1998 incidents with Grimaudo, this court cannot consider claims other than those presented to the EEOC in August 2002 and specified in the "Notice of Final Action." Accordingly, all claims in the second amended complaint other than the seven enumerated claims described above are dismissed.

 I. Race Discrimination

  Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer such as the USPS "to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Israel may prove intentional employment discrimination under Title VII by using either the "direct method" or "indirect method." Adams v. Wal-Mart Stores. Inc., 324 F.3d 935, 938 (7th Cir. 2003).

  The direct method of proof permits a plaintiff like Israel to show, through either direct evidence or circumstantial evidence, that his employer's decision to take an adverse job action against him was motivated by an impermissible purpose, such as race. Id. at 938-39. The Seventh Circuit has explained that "[d]irect evidence is evidence which if believed by the trier of fact, will Page 9 prove the particular fact in question without reliance on inference or presumption." Walker v. Glickman, 241 F.3d 884, 888 (7th Cir. 2001) quoting Miller v. Borden, Inc., 168 F.3d 308, 312 (7th Cir. 1999)). In addition, Israel can prevail under the direct method of proof by presenting circumstantial evidence that "point[s] directly to a discriminatory reason for the employer's action." Adams, 324 F.3d at 939.

  In the case at hand, Israel does not appear to proceed under the direct method. He does not point to any direct evidence or circumstantial evidence. In fact, Israel addresses the prima facie case under the indirect method, and thus, apparently seeks to establish race discrimination under this method.

  Under the indirect method, i.e., the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework, Adams, 324 F.3d at 93 9, Israel must establish a prima facie case of race discrimination. If he establishes a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to Potter to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the USPS's employment action. If Potter meets this burden, Israel may rebut the evidence by showing that Potter's proffered non-discriminatory reason is a pretext for discrimination or that the decision was tainted by impermissible, race-based motives. Johnson, 325 F.3d 892 at 897. In order to establish a prima facie case of race discrimination, Israel must prove that: (1) he was a member of a protected class; (2) he was performing his job to the USPS's satisfaction; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated employees who were not members of the protected class were treated more favorably by the USPS. Id In order to survive the Potter's motion for summary judgment, Israel is required to demonstrate a triable issue as to each element of the prima facie case. Griffin v. Potter, 356 F.3d 824, 828 (7th Cir. 2004). Potter does not dispute that Israel satisfies the first prong of the prima facie case. Page 10

  Potter does argue that Israel cannot establish that he was performing his job to USPS's satisfaction. Potter claims that by questioning supervisors' orders, instead of complying with the orders and then filing grievances as required by USPS standards, and not following break and work schedules, Israel was not performing satisfactorily. Potter does not cite to any case law in support of this position, and Israel addresses this prong of the prima facie case by citing to inapplicable decisions by Illinois state courts. Clearly, USPS employees were expected to follow supervisors' orders and comply with work schedules. Israel did not do so and thus may not have been performing to the USPS's satisfaction. However, because the parties did not fully address this point and because several other grounds exist on which to grant summary judgment, this court need not determine this issue.

  With respect to the third prong of Israel's prima facie case, the Seventh Circuit has held that "[a] materially adverse employment action is something `more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities.'" Rhodes v. Ill. Dep't of Transp., 359 F.3d 498, 504 (7th Cir. 2004) quoting Crady v. Liberty Nat'l Bank & Trust Co. of Ind, 993 F.2d 132, 136 (7th Cir. 1993)). It must "significantly alter[] the terms and conditions of the employee's job. . . ." Griffin, 356 F.3d at 829. For purposes of Title VII, an adverse employment action is a significant change in the plaintiffs employment status such as hiring, discharge, denial of promotion, reassignment to a position with significantly different job responsibilities, or an action that causes a substantial change in benefits. Rhodes, 359 F.3d at 504. With this standard in mind, this court will analyze each claim before the EEOC to determine whether it constitutes an adverse employment action. First, the August 19, 1999, threat of disciplinary action was just mat-merely a threat. No job action whatsoever was taken against Israel. Second, although Israel was placed on emergency off-duty Page 11 status on August 25, 1999, he admitted that after he filed a grievance he received back pay for the time off. Consequently, because Israel ultimately received full compensation for the time spent in emergency off-duty status, he suffered no adverse employment action. Third, it is not clear what impact the letter of warning had on Israel's employment status, but no evidence suggests that it had any immediate impact on his benefits. A letter of warning, as part of a progressive discipline system, is not an adverse employment action. Oest v. Ill. Dep't of Corr., 240 F.3d 605, 613 (7th Cir. 2001); see also Griffin, 356 F.3d at 829 (finding that a letter of warning issued by the USPS does not constitute an adverse employment action). Fourth, the threat of termination and letter requiring medical documentation were not adverse employment actions. Ultimately, Israel was not terminated. He, in fact, retired.*fn7 Finally, the seven-day suspension without pay and denial of COP benefits were, at least arguably, adverse employment actions. As to these claims, along with the other five, however, Israel cannot satisfy the fourth prong of the prima facie case.

  With respect to the seven-day suspension, Israel admitted at his deposition that as far as he knew he was the only employee taking 15-minute breaks every hour. (Def.'s Exs. in Supp., Ex. 1 at 89.) He cannot point to a non-African American employee who took 15-minute breaks every hour and who was not suspended for doing so. Consequently, this claim fails.

  In regards to the COP benefits, in response to Potter's motion, Israel has not identified a similarly situated non-African American who was treated more favorably than him, i.e., actually Page 12 granted COP benefits under similar circumstances. The parties spend time arguing about whether the USPS is responsible for COP benefits, particularly for the first 45 days, and whether a court can review the denial of COP benefits. However, all of this is really irrelevant here. Israel is not directly challenging the COP decision; rather, he alleges race discrimination and must show that he was denied COP benefits because of his race. This court will not decide whether the COP benefits should have been granted or denied. The only issue before this court is whether the benefits were denied because Israel is an African American or in retaliation for his prior EEOC charges. Because Israel will not be able to establish that a similarly situated non-African American was granted COP benefits under similar circumstances, he cannot establish a prima facie case of race discrimination.*fn8

  Although not adverse employment actions, for the sake of completeness, this court will address the 1999 Building 10 incidents. In response to Potter's arguments regarding those incidents, Israel can point to no similarly situated employees outside of his protected class who were treated more favorably than him. In his memorandum, Israel claims that employees with less seniority than him were not required to report to Building 10 (but does not state their races) and lists "Mr. Ghuman" as a person not ordered to go Building 10. (Pl.'s Mem. at 20.) Notwithstanding that this "fact" is not included in Israel's 56.1 material, it is clear that Ghuman was not similarly situated to Israel. At the EEOC hearing, Israel testified that supervisors were requiring relatively more senior employees like him to go to Building 10 instead of juniors or part-time flexees or casuals. He named Ghuman as being in one of these classes of employees. (Def.'s Exs. in Supp., Ex. 2 at 21.) Therefore, Ghuman was not similarly situated to Israel. Ghuman had less seniority or was in a Page 13 different job classification than Israel. To carry his burden, Israel must point to a non-African American with similar seniority who was not required to report to Building 10 when Israel was. Israel has not made this prima facie showing with respect to any of his claims. Consequently, Potter is entitled to summary judgment in its favor.

  Even if Israel could establish a prima facie case, Potter has advanced legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for the USPS's decisions. First, with respect to the Building 10 incidents in 1999, Israel questioned supervisors' orders in violation of USPS standards. Israel was required to follow the orders and later file grievances if he disagreed with the orders. Second, as to the seven-day suspension, Israel refused to follow a supervisor's order to refrain from taking the breaks. Again, even if the order was wrong, USPS standards compelled Israel to follow it and later file a grievance. Third, the letter threatening termination and requiring medical documentation was issued because Israel missed work without an excuse. Finally, the USPS determined that Israel did not qualify for COP benefits, based on the documents Israel submitted. Each of these is a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for USPS's actions.

  As such, Israel now must come forward and show that these reasons were pretext for race discrimination. He has not done so. As to pretext, Israel raises the alleged forgery by Grimaudo, which, as this court explained earlier in this opinion, is irrelevant to the pending race discrimination claims. Israel also asserts, in conclusory fashion, that Johnson sent Israel's doctor fictitious and misleading paperwork which caused the benefits to be denied. (Pl.'s Mem. at 21.) Israel provides no evidence to support his position. Therefore, because Israel cannot establish that the USPS's legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons are pretextual, summary judgment must be granted in Potter's favor. Page 14

 II. Retaliation

  Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because that employee "has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII] or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [Title VII]." 42U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). Israel may establish a prima facie case of retaliation and defeat Potter's motion for summary judgment using either the direct method or the indirect method. Hilt-Dyson v. City Of Chicago, 282 F.3d 456, 465 (7th Cir. 2002). Under the direct method, Israel must present direct evidence of (1) a statutorily protected activity; (2) an adverse action taken by the employer; and (3) a causal connection between the two. Rhodes, 359 F.3d at 508.

  As explained above, the only instances of adverse action relate to the seven-day suspension and denial of COP benefits. First, Israel had not, prior to the suspension, ever filed an EEOC complaint against Skillom, the woman who issued the suspension. Israel argues, however, that the real person behind his suspension was Grimaudo. (Pl.'s Mem. at 22.) Israel fails to point to evidence, as opposed to his own mere speculation and conjecture, demonstrating that Grimaudo was behind the suspension or that even if he was, he did so because Israel had filed complaints against him in 1997 and 1999. The statement, "Bullshit, he is not going anywhere. Write him up." (Id.). as Israel alleges Grimaudo said prior to the suspension in reference to Israel, does not evidence that Grimaudo prompted Skillom to suspend Israel or that the suspension was based on prior complaints against Grimaudo. Second, Israel had never filed an EEOC complaint against Johnson prior to the denial of the COP benefits. In response to the Potter's argument, Israel has failed to demonstrate any causal connection between any prior EEOC complaint and his denial of COP benefits. Because Page 15 Israel cannot show that any job discipline from 1999 to 2001 was causally linked to any prior protected activity, he must proceed under the indirect method.

  However, Israel's claims fare no better under this method. Under the indirect method, Israel must show that (1) he engaged in a statutorily protected activity; (2) he performed his job according to the USPS's legitimate expectations; (3) despite his satisfactory job performance, he suffered an adverse action from the USPS; and (4) he was treated less favorably than similarly situated employees who did not engage in statutorily protected activity. Hilt-Dyson, 282 F.3d at 465. Contrary to Potter's arguments (Def's Mem. at 8), under the indirect method, the Seventh Circuit has made clear that "an employee need not present proof of a `causal link' between the protected expression in which the plaintiff engaged (as by filing a complaint about an unlawful act by his employer) and the adverse employment action of which he is complaining.'" Johnson, 325 F.3d at 897 (quoting Stone v. City of Indianapolis Pub. Utils. Div., 281 F.3d 640, 642 (7th Cir. 2002)). If Israel establishes a prima facie case of retaliation, the burden of production shifts to Potter to come forward with a legitimate, noninvidious reason for the USPS's adverse action. Rhodes, 359 F.3d at 508. Once Potter presents a legitimate, noninvidious reason for the adverse action, the burden remains with Israel to present evidence that Potter's reason is pretextual. Id.

  This court need not spend much time on this issue. The above discussion as to Israel's race discrimination claim applies here. As explained in the race discrimination section above, Israel can arguably establish adverse job actions with respect to only two incidents. As with the race discrimination claim, Israel cannot identify any similarly situated persons who did not engage in protected activity and were treated more favorably than Israel under similar circumstances. Moreover, as previously explained, Potter has advanced legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for Page 16 the USPS's job actions. As to pretext, Israel points to no actual evidence of pretext and merely states that he will present such "powerful evidence" at trial. (Pl.'s Mem. at 24.) Trial, however, is too late. Because Israel cannot establish a claim for retaliation under either the direct or indirect method, Potter's motion for summary judgment is granted.

  CONCLUSION

  In conclusion, even if Israel suffered mistreatment by the USPS, he cannot establish that the USPS took any of its actions because of Israel's race or because of his protected activity. Consequently, defendant Potter's motion for summary judgment is granted. Plaintiff Israel's motion for Rule 52(c) judgment is denied. Judgment is entered in favor of defendant Potter and against plaintiff Israel. Any pending motions are moot.


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