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ZOLLNER v. LONG

May 12, 2005.

SHERYL ZOLLNER, Plaintiff,
v.
KAREN LONG and ROBERT EASTER, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MICHAEL J. REAGAN, District Judge

MEMORANDUM and ORDER

Now before the Court is Defendants Karen Long and Robert Easter's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 14) and memorandum in support (Doc. 17) as to Count One of Plaintiff Sheryl Zollner's complaint against Long and Easter. Zollner alleges Long and Easter violated 42 U.S.C. 1983 by retaliating against her for exercising her First Amendment rights (Doc. 1).*fn1 Zollner responded in opposition at Doc. 18, to which Long and Easter replied at Doc. 19. This matter being fully briefed, the Court begins its analysis with a brief recitation of the factual background and procedural history.

Factual Background and Procedural History

  Zollner was employed by the University of Illinois at their Cooperative Extension Service office in Sparta, Illinois from 1982 until June 21, 2002, when she resigned. Long was Zollner's supervisor from the date Long was hired in 1983 or 1984 until Zollner resigned in 2002. Easter was Long's supervisor and responsible for the University of Illinois Extension Program, which included the office where Zollner worked. Zollner initially worked at the office as a secretary. She then assumed the position of Community Worker in 1993. As a Community Worker Zollner was responsible for 4-H programming and Homemaker's Extension Association programming in Randolph County, Illinois. Then in March 1998, Zollner voluntarily resumed the position of office secretary as she believed her Community Worker position was going to be eliminated. However, Zollner returned to the Community Worker position in August 1999, and continued in that position until her resignation on June 21, 2002, which was formally accepted on June 22, 2002. Zollner states she returned to the Community Worker position as she witnessed "some things as [secretary] that I felt were unethical, unprofessional." Doc. 24, Exh. B-Part I, p. 17.

  Zollner first witnessed alleged unethical behavior in the summer of 1998 when working as the office secretary . Long approached Zollner and asked if she would be willing to do some typing for Steve Keith of Alltech Research, who owned several greenhouses. Long told Zollner that in addition to her work at the office, she does business with Keith. Zollner told Long she would do the work on her off-time at home. Zollner ended up typing and designing three brochures at Long's request for Keith on her off-hours. However, Long instructed Zollner to run the brochures on the office copier and fold them while she was at work. Long paid her for her the time she worked at home on the brochures.

  As well, Long later instructed Zollner to make a guide outlining various types of weeds using University publication materials, apparently for Keith, while at the office. Zollner did so, and later that summer a huge shipment of copies of the weed guide Zollner had made arrived at the office. Zollner is unsure whether the University material on weeds was copyrighted. Long also had Zollner bind materials for Keith and Alltech.

  In the fall of 1998, Zollner was in charge of paying the office staff's work cell phone bills. Zollner noticed that Long's bill had tripled, and upon looking at the itemizations, Zollner noticed that most of the calls were to Keith's business. As well, Zollner observed Keith coming into the office on a daily basis and meeting with Long for a couple of hours behind closed doors. Keith would also constantly call Long at the office. Further, Zollner observed Long ordering office supplies for Keith using the University's tax exempt status and educational discount. However, Long would keep the bill separate from office bills and Keith would pay his portion.

  Zollner had a conversation with Long where she told her she did not think it was right that Keith was ordering supplies through the office and that it was a conflict of interest for Long to be working for Keith. Zollner also mentioned Long's cell phone bills and how Keith was always calling her and coming by to see her at the office. Zollner states that Long simply replied that she did not realize that Keith was ordering supplies with the office's tax exempt and educational discount status. She also apologized for people's concern about her conflict of interest. Thereafter, Keith stopped coming by the office, but instead, Long would take two and three hour lunches, and Zollner believes she was meeting with Keith during that time. Long's cell phone usage did not decrease.

  Zollner then resumed the position of Community Worker and Jennifer Jacobsen took over her former position as office secretary. At some point Jacobsen approached Zollner and asked if Long was working for somebody else. Zollner informed Jacobsen that Long was working for Keith and Alltech Research. At that point Jacobsen shared with Zollner that office equipment was being checked out by either Long or Keith and it would be gone for extended periods of time. As well, Jacobsen told Zollner that the office was paying for a subscription for Keith to an internet agriculture database, and Keith was not reimbursing the office.

  In January 2000, the University conducted an investigative audit of the Extension Office. Zollner states that Tony Spurlock, the auditor, and Pat Buchanan, the regional director, told Zollner that they were investigating Long because of an anonymous letter they had received. Zollner did not send the letter, nor does she know who sent it. As part of the audit, Zollner gave statements regarding her observations of Long's involvement with Alltech Research. Zollner states that she never learned the results of the January 2000 audit, but that the atmosphere in the Extension Office became hostile and communication between the office staff deteriorated after the audits.*fn2

  Zollner states that Long told her that she blamed Jacobsen for the audit. As a result, Zollner asserts that Long began to harass Jacobsen by using a harsh tone of voice and by giving her short deadlines on work assignments.

  In June 2000, Jacobsen, Zollner, Long, and Buchanan met regarding the audit. Apparently the audit report had just been completed, but the results were only going to be shared with a few people at the University and with Long. Consequently, Zollner and Jacobsen did not learn the results of the audit at the meeting. But Zollner did discuss her feelings regarding Long's conflict of interest and the atmosphere in the office. Jacobsen discussed how she felt that Long was harassing her as a result of the first audit. Jacobsen later resigned on October 30, 2000.

  After the June 2000 meeting, Long had a private line installed in her office. Long told the staff that calls from her family and all direct calls would be made to the new private line instead of to the main line that the secretary answered. If Long did not answer her private line then it would ring out front in the reception area. However, all of Long's family calls and other business calls continued to come through the main line, and whenever Zollner would answer Long's private line, the person would hang up.

  A follow-up audit occurred approximately one year after the initial investigative audit. At the audit, Zollner disclosed her concerns regarding Long's work for Keith and Alltech. Zollner also expressed her concerns regarding Long's new private line and Long's extended absences from the office. ...


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