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Miller v. University of Chicago

January 29, 2006

CURTIS MILLER AND EARNEST THOMAS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David H. Coar

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before this Court are two motions for summary judgment filed by Defendant the University of Chicago ("the University" or "Defendant") against Curtis Miller ("Miller") and Earnest Thomas ("Thomas") (collectively "Plaintiffs") pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Plaintiffs have complained that the University discriminated against them on the basis of race and age in violation of their rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 621 et seq., and that the University violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §207, 29 C.F.R. 541.118 ("FLSA"). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motions are GRANTED.

BACKGROUND*fn1

Miller Facts

Curtis Miller is an African-American male who worked as a full-time employee in the University's Department of Physical Education & Athletics ("the Department") prior to his termination in April, 2004. Facts ¶ 2. Miller was first hired in 1985 as the Assistant to the Director of Facilities, under Brian Baldea ("Baldea") who was the Director of Facilities at the time. Facts ¶ 22. At all times relevant to the instant case,*fn2 Tom Weingartner ("Weingartner") was the Director of Athletics,and had ultimate supervisory authority over Department employees. Id. ¶¶ 16, 22. The University believed that Miller was exempt from the requirements of FLSA. Facts ¶ 24.

In 2003, the department was reorganized in conjunction with the construction of the new Gerald Ratner Athletics Center ("Ratner Center"). See id. ¶ 12. As part of this reorganization, Weingartner created a new full-time position called the Assistant Director of Athletics for Facilities Management ("ADAFM") and hired Jennifer Coleman ("Coleman") to fill it. Id. ¶¶ 13-14. Miller soon after became Facilities Manager/Facilities Services -- one of three newly created Facilities Manager positions -- which involved little substantive change of duties but meant that Miller now reported to Coleman in her role as ADAFM. Id. ¶ 50. At this point, Miller reported directly to Coleman, who was in charge of "all facilities responsibilities," but she in turn reported to Weingartner, who retained ultimate authority to make "all hiring, firing, and major purchasing decisions in the Department." Id. ¶ 16. Also in conjunction with this reorganization, Weingartner initiated an effort to "raise the level of performance expectations within the department." Id. ¶ 15; see also id. ¶ 66.

Miller himself was responsible for coordinating the physical setup of all the various activities that took place within the Department, physical education classes, intercollegiate contests, practices, and club sport, and in addition was in charge of "making sure that all of the varsity competitions transpired." Id. ¶ 26. Other employees, titled "athletic aides," were generally responsible for the physical labor required to complete these tasks. Id. All of these aides belonged to Local 73 of the Service Employee International Union division of the AFLCIO ("SEIU"). Id. ¶ 27. The aides worked under a labor agreement requiring that their supervisors be non-union University management workers and limiting the extent to which supervisors could perform aides' normal duties. Id. Miller once exceeded these manual labor limitations and subjected the University to a grievance. Id. Select tasks in the Department, such as custodial services and the maintenance of scoreboards and exercise equipment, were performed by outside vendors. Id. ¶ 7.

Certain aspects of Miller's work were administrative or executive in nature. With respect to the athletic aides, Miller would generally: verify the aides' timesheets; review their work at the end of the day; determine the division of work shifts; prepare annual performance evaluations of the aides; and perform these tasks using a personal workspace and email account that others were not given. He was generally viewed as the supervisor of the athletic aides, according to: at least one of the aides themselves, id. ¶ 28; Miller's own opinion, id. ¶ 44, Miller's Int. Resp. 7, Tab G at 10, Miller's EEOC Intake Questionnaire at 1-2, Compl. at 2; and the opinions of coaching staff who believed he was the appropriate person to address with concerns about the facilities, id. ¶¶ 38, 40. There were limits to Miller's power and independent authority: though he carried out some supervisory responsiblities with respect to the aides, he did not have ultimate authority over employment decisions or performance reviews, see id. ¶ 28, 29, and 34; and Miller made some payments from petty cash, but in most instances would only make purchasing suggestions to Weingartner, who was ultimately responsible for those decisions, id. ¶ 33. Nonetheless, it is undisputed that "[t]he University expected Miller to exercise independent discretion in carrying out his job duties." Id. ¶ 55.

Weingartner received mixed signals regarding Miller's ability to adequately perform the tasks of his position. While Baldea had been Miller's supervisor, he generally gave the Petitioner positive performance reviews. Baldea Aff. ¶¶ 4, 6. However, Weingartner disagreed with these evaluations, and heard from other parties that Miller "was a subject of considerable criticism and controversy."*fn3 Id. ¶ 25. Baldea himself noted some concerns in Miller's performance reviews of 2001 and 2002, id. ¶ 42, which state in part: "Concerns exist over the relationship between Mr. Miller and some members of this Department. Mutual cooperation, respect, and smooth functioning have suffered as a result...I feel challenged in the coming year to work with Mr. Miller in finding ways to restore positive motivation in his work. He's a valuable assey with some outstanding capabilities," Baldea Aff. Ex. A. Baldea also once reprimanded Miller in writing for payroll concerns, discussing poor decionmaking on Plaintiff's part regarding the work hours of one of the athletic aides. See generally id. Ex. C.

When Coleman took over as Miller's supervisor, she, too, noted some problems with Miller's job performance. She was first warned that "she had inherited a problematic situation with regard to Miller." Id. ¶ 66. She also questioned several of the University coaches and discovered that they had problems with the way in which Miller and his crew were performing their duties. Id. ¶¶ 70-71. Coleman herself encountered problems concerning Miller's: availability, id. ¶ 76; communicativeness, id. ¶ 77; insubordination, id. ¶¶ 78, 80-81,86-87; and lateness, id. ¶ 79, 88. There was also significant tension between Coleman and Miller regarding athletic aide evaluations; in one instance, Coleman sought to have criticisms inserted into particular performance reviews and Miller refused on the grounds that he was better able to judge their performance. Id. ¶¶ 89-90. Such tension was particularly apparent in Thomas's job review in February of 2004, in which performance evaluation revisions went back and forth between the two parties at least six times. Id. ¶ 90. The problems also became clear in regard to the structuring of overtime pay, which athletic aides saw as important supplemental income, but which depleted Department resources. Id. ¶ 95. Though Miller denies that he was responsible for coordinating the allocation of overtime, id. ¶ 94, he had several conversations with Coleman in which she asked him to reduce these costs, id. ¶¶ 95-96, and Miller showed reluctance in making these changes, id. ¶ 96.

The problems between Coleman and Miller came to a head in the fall of 2003. Miller met with Weingartner to discuss some of the above issues, but Weingartner expressed his support for Coleman. Id. ¶ 98. During a meeting between all three involved parties, intended to ease tensions in the workplace, Weingartner again voiced his support for Coleman, a response that Miller saw as discriminatory and hostile. Id. ¶ 99. On October 24, 2003, Coleman gave Miller a formal performance review that outlined her concerns about his work, and mentioned specific problems and areas in need of improvement. Id. ¶ 103; Miller Dep. Ex. 14 (citing a "basic lack of thoroughness and attention to detail in your area of management," questions about the "productivity of your area of responsibility," lack of "a sense of trust and dependability in regards to you and your crew," doubts about "your overall initiative and problem solving ability," and failure to adapt to new job demands). The memorandum also noted that another review would be made in 45 days. Id. Coleman did not respond to this review, orally or in writing. Id. ¶ 104.

On January 5, 2004, Coleman wrote another formal performance review, reiterating the same work concerns. Id. ¶ 107; Miller Dep. Ex. 18. This document also put Miller on probation for 45 days, during which time he was to accomplish 10 specific tasks or risk termination. Id. Miller did not respond to this memorandum, orally or in writing. Id. With respect to both of these reviews, Miller did not believe that the criticisms were valid, and felt that, if anything, they were simply a pretext for discrimination. Id. ¶¶ 104, 108.

After the probationary period had ended, Coleman wrote to Miller to inform him that she would be recommending that his employment be discontinued. Id. ¶ 109. Miller was terminated in mid-April, 2004, id., after Weingartner consulted with the University's human resources department and decided to adopt Coleman's recommendation, id. ¶¶ 119-121. Miller was replaced by John Carey, a 26 year-old Caucasian who had been working as one of the other Facilities Managers. Id. ¶ 122.

There are some indications that race was a problematic issue within the Department. However, these alleged tensions generally did not raise to the level of formal proceedings. At one point, Miller met with the University's Affirmative Action Officer, Aneesah Ali, to discuss such "discrimination issues." Id. ¶ 115-117. This never evolved into a formal discrimination grievance. Also, in response to reports that Thomas had made allegations of racism regarding Coleman, Weingartner arranged to sit down with him. Id. ¶ 118. However, though Thomas filed a grievance against Coleman for general work demands, he never lodged a formal complaint of discrimination. Id. ¶ 119.

Thomas Facts

Plaintiff Earnest Thomas is an African-American male who worked as an athletic aide in the Department prior to his termination in June of 2004. Id. ¶ 3. On June 28, 2004, he met with the Department's administrator of human resources, Mary Cerceo ("Cerceo"), in order to recover a paycheck that he claimed he was owed. Facts ¶ 125. Immediately after the meeting, Cerceo met with Weingartner and Coleman and told them that Thomas had said "[t]his job has me so stressed out, it's the year 2000 and we're still being treated this way. I guess jail is the next place for me because when I start shooting I ain't gonna stop at one." Id. ¶ 126.*fn4 The substance of the conversation with Thomas was memorialized in a report to campus police and a follow-up email from Cerceo to Weingartner and Coleman. See id. ¶ 128. Following a police-supervised meeting with the two administrators later that day, Thomas was suspended. Id. ¶¶ 129-30. Though an investigation by campus security failed to find witnesses to the incident, Weingartner chose to rely on Cerceo's words -- taking into account the fact that they had been friends prior to the incident -- and acted on the recommendation of the human resources director in terminating Thomas. Id. ¶¶ 131-32. On June 29, 2004, Coleman wrote Thomas a letter informing him that he was being terminated. Id. ¶ 133. The University's Office of General Counsel then sent a letter informing the University community that Thomas was thereafter banned from University property. Id. ¶ 134.

On July 7, 2004, SEIU challenged Thomas's termination in a "Step Three" grievance. Id.

¶ 135. This initiated a meeting involving all of the key players, at which Thomas's complaints about Coleman's alleged discriminatory actions were introduced, along with co-workers' recollections of the day Thomas threatened Cerceo. Thomas also made several statements that could have been construed as threatening: he asked "if I was gonna do something to either one of you guys, I -- I would be stupid to do it out in the open like this, right? Now, if I wanted to hurt, I know where you live, wouldn't that be a better place, to sit across the street, around the corner and watch when you come and then do something to you?"; he told Coleman "if I wanted to do anything to you, I see you all the time," and that he knew where she lived; and, finally, he indicated to Weingartner that he knew where his children "hung out." Id. ¶ 138. The University's Employee/Labor Relations Specialist found that Thomas's termination had not violated union rules, id. ¶ 139, and, though SEIU gave notice of its intent to file for arbitration, no further action was taken under University or union grievance procedures, id. ¶ 140. Thomas was replaced by Asiel Poole, an African American male born in 1984. Id. ¶ 141.

STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

A party seeking summary judgment has the burden of showing, through "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any," that there are no genuine issues of material fact that would prevent judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). On a motion for summary judgment, courts "must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable and justifiable inferences in favor of that party." Allen v. Cedar Real Estate Group, LLP, 236 F.3d 374, 380 (7th Cir. 2001).

Even so, the nonmoving party may not rest upon mere allegations in the pleadings or upon conclusory statements in affidavits; rather, he must go beyond the pleadings and support his contentions with proper documentary evidence. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). In order to successfully oppose a motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must do more than raise a "metaphysical doubt" as to the material facts, see Wolf v. Northwest Ind. Symphony Soc'y, 250 F.3d 1136, 1141 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation and quotation omitted), and instead must present definite, competent evidence to rebut the motion, see Albiero v. City of Kankakee, 246 F.3d 927, 932 (7th Cir. 2001); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must decide, based on admissible evidence, whether any material dispute of fact exists that requires a trial. Waldridge v. Am. Hoechst Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 920 (7th Cir. 1994).

Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of 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 in which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. A non-moving party who bears the burden of proof on a specific issue must demonstrate by specific factual allegations that there is a genuine issue of material fact in dispute. McMillian v. Svetanoff, 878 F.2d 186, 188 (7th Cir. 1989). This evidence provided by the non-movant must be sufficient to enable a reasonable jury to find in his or her favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). "[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

In ruling on summary judgment regarding discrimination in the workplace claims, "the court should review all of the evidence in the record." Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150. In general, a lower court should not substitute its reasoning for that of the fact finder by dividing up the evidence to determine credibility, and will instead leave it to the ultimate fact finder to determine whether the cumulative evidence is sufficient to prove intent to discriminate. See generally, id.

ANALYSIS OF TITLE VII DISCRIMINATION

Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). There are two ways for a plaintiff to prove a case of discrimination under Title VII -- the direct method and the indirect method. A plaintiff proves a case under the direct method by putting forth enough evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, to raise a genuine issue concerning the employer's motivation in carrying out the challenged employment action. See e.g., Troupe v. May Dep't Stores Co., 20 F.3d 734, 736 (7th Cir. 1994). Neither Plaintiff has argued that he has offered sufficient direct evidence that the adverse employment actions taken resulted from discrimination on the basis of race or age. Instead, each relies on the second method; the indirect, burden-shifting method set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-03 (1973).

Under the burden-shifting method, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of producing evidence to sustain a prima facie case. Johnson v. Zema Sys. Corp., 170 F.3d 734, 742 (7th Cir. 1999). Each Plaintiff's prima facie case of race discrimination must show that he is: (1) in a protected class; (2) performing his job satisfactorily; (3) the subject of a materially adverse employment action; and (4) that similarly situated employees outside the protected class were treated more favorably. Oates v. Discovery Zone, 116 F.3d 1161, 1171 (7th Cir. 1997).

In terms of the second McDonnell-Douglass factor, the prima facie requirement of satisfying employer's reasonable demands is not intended to be onerous. Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981). However, each Plaintiff must nonetheless advance real proof that he adequately satisfied the demands of the workplace, rather than conclusory assertions regarding his qualifications. Fortier v. Ameritech Mobile Communications, Inc., 161 F.3d 1106, 1114 (7th Cir. 1998) (finding that the employee's own appraisal of the work they were doing cannot create a genuine issue of fact regarding the accuracy of performance evaluations). Even when employee's self-appraisal contains true statements regarding his or her performance, the employer is still "entitled to determine that the deficiencies in his performance outweighed such accomplishments." Id. It is not for this court to determine whether the employer's expectations were the appropriate ones for them to have, or if they had a realistic approach to those expectations; "so long as the employer's employment expectations are in good faith, without fraud or deceit, we only determine if the employee met them." Robin v. Espo Eng'g Corp., 200 F.3d 1081, 1090 (7th Cir. 2000).

In order to satisfy the fourth prong of the McDonnell Douglas test for prima facie discrimination, Plaintiff must find a ...


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