United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
September 7, 2005.
PEGGY BANKHEAD, Plaintiff,
WAUKEGAN SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARRY LEINENWEBER, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Peggy Bankhead (hereinafter, "Plaintiff") filed a
complaint against Defendant Waukegan School District
(hereinafter, the "District") alleging employment discrimination
based on race under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Before the Court is the Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, the
motion is granted.
Plaintiff, an African American, was a Paraprofessional/Special
Education Assistant in the District's Alternative Behavior
Disorder Student Support/Hearing Impaired Center (the "ABDSSC").
Her employment with the District was brief. She was hired in
February 2001 and terminated on May 31, 2001. Throughout the
duration of Plaintiff's employment, Frederick Howard (an African
American) was the Associate Superintendent of Human Resources and
ultimately responsible for hiring and firing Plaintiff.
Plaintiff's supervisor, Charlene Johnson (Caucasian), and former Deputy
Superintendent, Myron Dagley (Caucasian), interviewed Plaintiff
and recommended her hiring. Both also eventually recommended
Plaintiff's termination. A Paraprofessional's principal job
duties include assisting certified classroom teachers, while
attending to the special needs of students at the ABDSSC.
Plaintiff's short tenure with the District was tumultuous. In
March, after Plaintiff began work in the ABDSSC, Johnson received
several complaints concerning Plaintiff's interaction with
students. Johnson's affidavit indicates two specific instances,
although no other documentation reflects these complaints.
(Johnson Aff. ¶¶ 8, 9). Johnson communicated these complaints to
Plaintiff, who denied any wrongdoing on her part. On April 8,
2001, however, teacher and coworker Kenneth Roznowski submitted
his required paraprofessional evaluation of Plaintiff, giving her
an excellent rating in all categories.
On April 25, 2001, Johnson wrote a supervision note (or,
write-up) concerning a specific incident involving Plaintiff and
several students, and shared the note in a meeting with
Plaintiff. Johnson did not witness the incident, but received
complaints from the students involved in the incident. The note
stated that an unnamed staff member overheard and confirmed
Plaintiff's derogatory comments specifically, "[y]our mama's a
bitch" and "[y]ou are just a sent off" aimed at the students.
In the note, Johnson stated that appropriate professional behavior "includes not
arguing with students or using inappropriate language." (Def.
56.1, Exh. G). After meeting with Johnson, Plaintiff handwrote
over the note, "Never will I sign this. This is a lie." Her
position is that she admits that an incident with the complaining
students occurred, but denies making the comments and that the
characterization of events was fabricated.
Johnson's second supervision note reprimanding Plaintiff
occurred on May 16, 2001. On that day, Plaintiff was in a
classroom with an ABDSSC student who was acting in a negative
fashion. Plaintiff and the student exchanged words and
eventually, a security guard and Johnson directed Plaintiff to
leave the classroom. Plaintiff did not leave and the security
guard carried her out of the room. (Davis Aff. ¶¶ 4-8; Pl. Dep.
at 51). Johnson's note and other testimony differ from
Plaintiff's account of the incident. In Johnson's version of the
incident, Plaintiff was observed yelling at the student. On the
other hand, Plaintiff testified that the student's behavior was
threatening, that she did not raise her voice, but instead was
terrified of the student and asked a security guard for
assistance. Johnson was in the classroom near the end of the
altercation and told Plaintiff that she had escalated the
situation between her and the student, although Plaintiff
disagreed. The note that Plaintiff received, but again refused to
sign, stated: "Your behavior today was unprofessional and unacceptable at ABDSSC. Again, I remind you
that it is my expectation that staff always maintain their
composure and be an appropriate role model for students. Another
incident of this nature could result in your termination." (Def.
56.1, Exh. H).
Following the May 16th incident, Plaintiff expressed concerns
to Dagley over several of the past incidents and alleged
mistreatment by supervisor Johnson. On May 23, 2001, Plaintiff
and her union representative met with Johnson and Dagley.
Co-workers Pipes and Roznowski also were asked to attend parts of
the meeting. The meeting did not go well. Plaintiff felt as
though her supervisors attacked her professionally and personally
by compiling evidence against her, instead of listening to her
side of the story. (Pl. Dep. at 69-76). At one point, Plaintiff
became upset and attempted to leave, but chose to stay after some
persuasion by her union representative. (Id. at 77-78).
Shortly after the meeting, Johnson and Dagley recommended in
memoranda to Howard that he terminate Plaintiff's employment.
(Def. 56.1, Exhs. K & L). Dagley's memorandum details his version
of the meeting, claiming Plaintiff "was very antagonistic in her
reaction," "hostile," "rude, and unprofessional." (Id., Exh.
L). He also stated that Plaintiff's co-workers who spoke at the
meeting "failed to substantiate any pattern of behavior by Ms.
Johnson which would resemble the allegations [of preferential treatment
Plaintiff received a standard contract renewal form sometime in
early May 2001. She signed the form on May 21, 2001 and sent it
back to the District. (Pl. Exh. B). However, on May 31, 2001,
Howard terminated Plaintiff's employment by letter. (Def. 56.1,
Exh. M). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a grievance with her union,
whose representative sent a letter to Howard, but did not pursue
the complaint any further because Plaintiff was a probationary
employee. (Pl. Exh. D). She also filed a discrimination charge
with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC") on
September 18, 2001 alleging that she was terminated because of
II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
Summary judgment is appropriate when "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 genuine issue of triable fact exists only if "the
evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict
for the nonmoving party." Pugh v. City of Attica, 259 F.3d 619,
624 (7th Cir. 2001) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). III. DISCUSSION
Plaintiff's complaint alleges that Defendant discriminated
against her based on race in violation of Title VII. The District
moves for summary judgment on the ground that Plaintiff has
failed to produce facts sufficient to establish a prima facie
case of race discrimination.
A. Racial Discrimination
Title VII prohibits employers from "discriminat[ing] against
any individual with respect to his compensation, terms,
conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such
individual's race. . . ." § 2000e-2 (a) (1). Plaintiff points to
no direct evidence that Defendant discriminated against her
because of her race, so she must proceed under the circumstantial
evidence test. To survive summary judgment under the
circumstantial evidence test set forth in McDonnell Douglas
Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973), Plaintiff must
establish that: "(1) she [is] a member of a protected class; (2)
she was subjected to an adverse employment action; (3) she was
meeting [the District's] legitimate expectations; and (4) other
similarly-situated employees who were not members of [her]
protected class were treated more favorably." Wells v. Unisource
Worldwide, Inc., 289 F.3d 1001, 1006 (7th Cir. 2002) (citing
Paluck v. Gooding Rubber Co., 221 F.3d 1003, 1012 (7th Cir.
2000)). As an African-American, Plaintiff is a member of a protected
class, and her termination constitutes an adverse employment
action. See Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742,
761 (1998) (defining an adverse employment action). Nonetheless,
Plaintiff is unable to establish the final two elements of the
prima facie case: that she was meeting the District's legitimate
expectations and that other similarly-situated white employees
were treated more favorably.
1. Meeting the District's Legitimate Expectations
Plaintiff has failed to produce evidence sufficient to carry
her burden on this element of the prima facie case. The record
establishes that the District began to view Plaintiff's job
performance as unsatisfactory shortly after she started.
Plaintiff had two specific write-ups of incidents where she
allegedly was acting inappropriately. However, both Plaintiff's
deposition and Defendant's submissions indicate several other
occasions where Johnson admonished Plaintiff for her behavior.
Even though Plaintiff refutes the truth of the underlying
allegations, she does admit to the occurrence of these
admonishments between herself and her supervisor. Further, a May
meeting between Plaintiff and her supervisors and follow-up
memoranda reflect that she was not meeting their professional
expectations. Specifically, both supervisors were upset with her
behavior during their May meeting. In the face of this substantial evidence that she was not
meeting the District's legitimate expectations, Plaintiff must
specifically refute her supervisors' explanation of her deficient
job performance. See Dey v. Colt Constr. & Dev. Co.,
28 F.3d 1446, 1460 (7th Cir. 1994) (stating that "a plaintiff may create
an issue of fact by specifically refuting facts that allegedly
support the employer's claim of performance deficiencies").
Plaintiff's own deposition testimony constitutes her most
detailed refutation of the District's appraisal of her job
performance. However, her deposition and arguments are inadequate
to avoid summary judgment because a Title VII plaintiff may not
rely on general averments of adequate performance to survive
summary judgment. See Dale v. Chi. Trib. Co., 797 F.2d 458, 464
(7th Cir. 1986) (affirming summary judgment for defendant
employer because plaintiff's only evidence that he had met his
employer's legitimate expectations was his own deposition). "`An
employee's self-serving statements about his ability . . . are
insufficient to contradict an employer's negative assessment of
that ability.'" Williams v. Seniff, 342 F.3d 774, 789 (7th Cir.
2003) (quoting Gustovich v. AT&T Communications, Inc.,
972 F.2d 845, 848 (7th Cir. 1992)).
Plaintiff's assertions that she was performing satisfactorily
and that all incidents involving students where her behavior
allegedly was inappropriate were fabricated, do not alone
substantiate evidence of meeting the District's legitimate expectations. Plaintiff asserts that her supervisors attacked her
personally and did not like her personality. She does not deny
the events of the May 2001 meeting, where her supervisors
characterized her behavior as "rude" and "unprofessional." By
itself, Plaintiff's negative behavior at the meeting may be
enough to terminate her employment for failure to meet the
District's legitimate expectations.
Notably, the record contains only one statement from a third
party (such as a supervisor or coworker) to substantiate
Plaintiff's assertion that she was performing her job
satisfactorily. To support her contention, Plaintiff points to
teacher Roznowski's highly favorable evaluation from April 2001.
Roznowski submitted this evaluation on April 8, 2001 several
weeks before Plaintiff's two supervision notes and the May 2001
meeting. Although the evaluation may be some evidence of
Plaintiff's positive performance, it does not create a genuine
issue of material fact because of the substantial documented
evidence of Plaintiff's negative performance that occurred after
this evaluation. Moreover, Plaintiff admits that prior to
Roznowski's evaluation, she "never met him in [her] life. . . ."
(Pl. Dep. at 84). Accordingly, Plaintiff has not established the
third element of her prima facie racial discrimination case.
The Court notes that Plaintiff's fabrication arguments relate
to the pretext analysis. In a Title VII summary judgment motion, the Court first decides if Plaintiff can establish a prima facie
race discrimination case. If a plaintiff can successfully build a
prima facie case, then the Court addresses the issue of pretext.
To survive summary judgment, a plaintiff must present evidence
that the defendant's proffered reasons for firing her were
pretextual, and that she was really fired because of her race.
Hoffman-Dombrowski v. Arlington Int'l Racecourse, Inc.,
254 F.3d 644, 652 (7th Cir. 2001). The Court does not weigh the
prudence of an employer's decisions, but only whether the
employer's proffered reason for its actions were honest. O'Regan
v. Arbitration Forums, Inc., 246 F.3d 975, 984 (7th Cir. 2001).
A plaintiff's evidence must show that the defendant's reasons had
no basis in fact, were not the real reasons, or were insufficient
to motivate the action. Hoffman-Dombrowski, 254 F.3d at 652.
Here, Plaintiff fails to establish a prima facie case on both
the third and fourth elements of race discrimination. Therefore,
the Court need not proceed to the pretext analysis. However, even
in considering Plaintiff's allegations that Johnson's write-ups
and other statements were fabricated, she has not provided any
evidence to undermine Johnson's version of the incidents. She
states that several students, coworkers, and other District
employees witnessed each incident, but does not present any
affidavits or other documentation to substantiate her factual
version. The Court recognizes that working at the ABDSSC is a
difficult task because of the highly-charged and sometimes dangerous environment. Even
so, the Court cannot review the prudence of the District's
decision to terminate Plaintiff.
2. Similarly-Situated Employees Treated More Favorably
Plaintiff also has not established the fourth element of the
McDonnell Douglas test. "To meet her burden of demonstrating
that another employee is `similarly situated,' a plaintiff must
show that there is someone who is directly comparable to her in
all material respects. . . ." Patterson v. Avery Dennison
Corp., 281 F.3d 676, 680 (7th Cir. 2002). In the instant case,
Plaintiff testified that she was treated differently from her
fellow paraprofessionals. The Court addresses Plaintiff's general
allegations, concluding that she failed to satisfy her burden.
Plaintiff's response brief states that "I was treated
differently than any of my white co-workers: Ms. Gerger, Ms. Rose
Bankhead (My sister-in-law) who referred me to the position and
Ms. Johnson for employment, because of my experience and
educational background with dealing with students with
behaviors." (Pl. Res. Br. ¶ 4). Although Plaintiff's argument is
not entirely clear, it appears that she asserts that Ms. Gerger
and Ms. Rose Bankhead, both allegedly white paraprofessionals,
were similarly situated and treated more favorably. Plaintiff
contends that she "was not supported" by supervisor Johnson, "or
given any clear direct instruction on how [to] deal with anything
pertaining to the students until after a false complaint was made by a student."
The Court construes this argument as Plaintiff's statement about
her treatment versus coworkers Gerger and Bankhead, who may have
been given instruction that Plaintiff allegedly did not receive.
Plaintiff elaborates on these statements in her response to
Defendant's Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts. She states that
"I know black? aides had a rough time under the supervision of
Ms. Charlene Johnson. I was the only black female
paraprofessional working at ABDSSC. There was another black
female employee working when I started who also had problems with
Ms. Johnson. (Vanessa Crawford). I [am] not sure what happened to
her[.] I just know she wasn't there anymore." (Pl. 56.1 Res. ¶
17). She also generally states that she "told Mr. Dagley that Ms.
Johnson treats me differently then she treats her white para
[professionals]. As far as write-ups and behaviors of students."
(Id. ¶ 18). And that she "definitely was treated differently
than [sic] [her] white co-workers." (Id. ¶ 21).
The Court recognizes that Plaintiff proceeds pro se. However,
Plaintiff still must produce at least some evidence to support
her allegations of discrimination on summary judgment. Plaintiff
makes several vague and unsupported statements. She alleges that
several white paraprofessional employees were treated more
favorably under supervisor Johnson, but she does not detail her
allegations, have actual personal knowledge of the situations, or
provide evidence beyond her own statements to support such contentions (such as
depositions, affidavits, or other documentation). See Oest v.
Ill. Dep't of Corrections, 240 F.3d 605, 614 (7th Cir. 2001)
(stating that "occurrence[s] not within [Plaintiff's] personal
knowledge . . . cannot satisfy her evidentiary burden" without
other evidence). Plaintiff also makes a general allegation that
"only black students would have the police called on them when
they threatened white staff. . . ." (Pl. Resp. 56.1 ¶ 17).
However, this allegation is unsupported and is not relevant to
Plaintiff's Title VII race discrimination claim. Without more,
the Court concludes that Plaintiff's uncorroborated statements
are insufficient to meet her burden on this element. See Oest,
240 F.3d at 615. Accordingly, Plaintiff fails to establish a
prima facie case of race discrimination.
For the reasons stated herein, the Defendant's Motion for
Summary Judgment is GRANTED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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