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Sullins v. Illinois Dep't of Public Aid

March 10, 2006

DEBORAH R. SULLINS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC AID, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeanne E. Scott, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (d/e 15). Plaintiff Deborah Sullins' two-count Complaint (d/e 1) alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by her employer, the Illinois Department of Public Aid (Department). See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. In Count 1, Plaintiff alleges that she was a victim of gender discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). In Count 2, Plaintiff alleges that she was subjected to retaliatory acts in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3. The Department moves for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Summary Judgment is allowed, in part, and denied, in part.

BACKGROUND

The facts recited below are based on the evidence which has been presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to Sullins, as the Court is required to do. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Sullins began working for the Department in 1986. In February 2000, Sullins was assigned to a Medical Assistant Consultant (MAC) position in the Department's Bureau of Comprehensive Health Services (Bureau). Steve Bradley was the Bureau Chief. The Bureau was a part of the Department's Division of Medical Programs. According to Bradley, the Division of Medical Programs is responsible for paying for the health care needs of nearly 2 million Medicaid beneficiaries. The Bureau provides billing assistance and policy interpretation to medical service providers and works with policy development and the promulgation of administrative rules.

Sullins worked in the Bureau's hospital unit which was headed by Jodie Edmonds. In 2000, there were five female and five male non-supervisory employees in the hospital unit. The MACs who worked in the hospital unit were divided into two teams, which were headed by Marvin Ross and Lenna DeGroot, respectively. Ross and DeGroot reported to Edmonds. Ross and DeGroot had first level responsibility for disciplining the employees who were beneath them, and they were the individuals to whom these employees could voice concerns. Sullins was a member of the DeGroot team, and as such, DeGroot was Sullins' immediate supervisor. The hospital unit maintained offices in the basement of the Bloom Building in Springfield, Illinois. Ross, DeGroot, and their teams were situated together along a u-shaped corridor in the basement.

At the time Sullins began working in the hospital unit, Mark Scheff was working in the unit as a MAC. Scheff was supervised by Marvin Ross. Sullins had met Scheff in 1995 or 1996 in connection with her work for the Department; however, she had little contact with Scheff until she joined the hospital unit. Between February 2000 and October 2000, Sullins worked around Scheff on a daily basis. Sullins noticed that Scheff was different than other employees in the unit when it came to using profanities and making comments that had sexual connotations. According to Sullins, while other employees did so occasionally, Scheff did so all the time. Sullins states that in all the conversations she had with Scheff, or in those she overheard in which Scheff participated, between February and October 2000, only one conversation did not involve a comment of a sexual nature. Scheff's comments were fairly graphic. He would frequently describe sexual acts that he had engaged in or had observed in pornographic movies.

Another recurring topic of Scheff's conversations was his perception that men were unable to advance within the Bureau. Scheff maintained statistics regarding the relative number of males and females in the Bureau and the relative number of males and females in high ranking positions. Scheff frequently referred to Bradley as a traitor to men who tended to surround himself with "strong pussy." Memorandum of Plaintiff, Deborah R. Sullins, in Opposition to the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 21) (Plaintiff's Memorandum), Ex. 1, Affidavit of Deborah R. Sullins (Sullins Affidavit), ¶ 14. Outside the presence of Ross and DeGroot, Scheff would frequently compare the two individuals' supervisory abilities. Scheff characterized Ross as the superior supervisor because he was male and, in Scheff's opinion, had more sense than DeGroot. According to Sullins, Scheff often commented that women were not as intelligent as men, and while Scheff sought help with work problems from male MACs, he never did so from female MACs. Sullins stated that the female workers in the hospital unit would tend to avoid having contact with Scheff.

The MACs in the hospital unit spent most of their workday on the telephone assisting providers with billing inquiries. However, the telephone system closed at 3:00 p.m. each day. From 3:00 p.m. until the end of the workday, the MACs would complete paperwork and return missed phone calls. Thus, as a MAC, Scheff's position required him to be on the telephone constantly between 8:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., except for his lunch and break periods.

When Sullins started with the hospital unit, she shared an office with P.K. Luttrel. Sullins and Luttrel's office was adjacent to an office shared by Mike Sandidge and Joe Roberts. On an almost daily basis, Scheff would come to Sandidge and Roberts' office after the phones were turned off at 3:00 p.m. Jim Schuh was also frequently present in the office. The men would engage in conversations, much of which was unrelated to business. As a part of these conversations, Scheff would make comments of a sexual nature. He often talked in graphic terms about sex acts. Scheff engaged in vulgarity from 3:15 p.m. to 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. on most work days.

While the other men also spoke during the conversations, Scheff elevated his voice and could be heard outside of the office. To counter the noise from the next room, Sullins often listened to music through headphones and closed the office door after 3:00 p.m. Scheff's voice was loud enough, however, that Sullins could still hear him, despite these efforts. On occasion, when DeGroot passed by Sandidge and Roberts' office, she would tell the men that they should not speak so loudly. Prior to transferring to the hospital unit, Sullins rarely took sick leave. However, from March 2000 to October 2000, she began using sick time with increasing frequency so she could leave the office around 3:00 p.m. to avoid having to hear Scheff's comments.

When Sullins had been in the hospital unit for several weeks, she began complaining to DeGroot about Scheff's comments. In response, DeGroot made comments including "boys will be boys," "that's just Mark," and "Jodie has tried before to correct Mark and it has not worked." Plaintiff's Memorandum, p.13, Plaintiff's Additional Undisputed Facts, ¶ 52. Sullins also spoke to Ross, who was Scheff's supervisor, about Scheff's comments. Neither DeGroot nor Ross indicated to Sullins that they would take any steps to change Scheff's behavior. Sullins then began voicing her complaints to Edmonds, who informed Sullins that she would just have to put up with Scheff's behavior.*fn1

In October 2000, Edmonds promoted Sullins to an Executive II position. When Scheff heard that Sullins had been awarded the promotion, he came to her work station and commented that the only reasons she got the promotion was "because [she] had a vagina and not a penis." Sullins Affidavit, ¶ 31. In the new position, Sullins became the coordinator of the state renal program. In connection with her promotion, Sullins was assigned to a new office in the basement of the Bloom Building. This office was around the corner from Scheff's office and closer to Scheff's office than Sullins' previous office had been.

Mary Thallman was another MAC on DeGroot's team. During 2000, she worked in close proximity to Scheff's work station. According to Thallman, Scheff made graphic sexual comments on a constant basis. Thallman complained to supervisors, but no change in Scheff's behavior resulted. In October 2000, Thallman was sharing an office with Schuh. One day during the month, Scheff came into Thallman and Schuh's office and had a conversation with Schuh. During the conversation, Scheff made comments of a graphic sexual nature. Scheff's comments were similar to the types of comments he made all of the time.

After the conversation, Thallman went to Sullins' work station and talked with her about Scheff's comments. Sullins indicated that the only way to change Scheff's behavior was to make a formal complaint against him with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Thallman considered Sullins' statement and determined that a formal complaint would be the proper course of action. Thallman asked Sullins for the telephone number of Laura Whetstone, an investigator in the OIG. Sullins was involved in an on-going relationship with Whetsone at this time. Sullins gave Thallman Whetstone's phone number and then phoned Whetstone herself to inform her that Thallman needed to talk to her.

Whetstone contacted Thallman on October 13, 2000, and Thallman made a complaint to Whetstone relating to Scheff's sexual comments in the conversation with Schuh. Later that day, Thallman filed a formal internal sexual harassment charge against Scheff with the OIG. Whetstone contacted Bradley and informed him of the allegations against Scheff. On October 19, 2000, Bradley sent a memo to Scheff, directing him to immediately cease engaging in activities of an unprofessional nature, including making comments of a sexual nature. Plaintiff's Memorandum, Ex. 14. The memo further directed Scheff to have no contact with Thallman. Id. Bradley also met with Scheff on October 19, 2000, to discuss the investigation. At that time, Scheff told Bradley that he would have retribution against individuals making frivolous accusations against him.

During a meeting on October 23, 2000, OIG investigator Terry Tranquilli told Scheff that Sullins had led Thallman to Whetstone. Scheff was also informed by OIG of statements that had been made against him by Thallman, Sullins, and other co-workers. At this time, Scheff formed the opinion that Sullins was attempting to discredit him. In his deposition in the present case, Scheff testified that he believes that Thallman lied in making the allegations against him and that Sullins coached Thallman in connection with the complaint. Plaintiff's Memorandum, Ex. 12, Deposition of Mark T. Scheff (Scheff Dep.), p. 68-69.

Prior to the Thallman complaint, Scheff rarely passed Sullins' new office. It was not necessary for him to walk past her office to enter or exit his work area, to go to the restroom or break areas, or to communicate with his supervisors or other MACs. After the Thallman complaint, however, Scheff walked by Sullins' office many times each day. Prior to the Thallman complaint, Scheff had never gone to the work stations of clerical employees stationed outside Sullins' office. However, after the Thallman complaint, Scheff would frequently go to the work station of one particular clerical employee which was located outside Sullins' office. Scheff would frequently make comments to the clerical employee about the pending Thallman investigation and the lawsuit he was planning on filing against individuals who had given information to the OIG investigators. When Scheff passed Sullins' office, he would tend to look into the office and scowl at Sullins. As a result, Sullins rearranged her office furniture so that she would no longer face the office door when working at her desk. After making this change, however, from time to time, Sullins would turn toward the door and see Scheff staring at her from the hallway. Sullins asserts that she noticed a change in Scheff's attire following the Thallman complaint. Specifically, Sullins noticed that Scheff, who had previously worn a coat and tie to work, began wearing blue jeans and boots to work. Sullins also asserts that Scheff "started to wear a duster of the type that the boys involved in the Columbine massacre had worn." Sullins Affidavit, ¶ 45. Edmonds, however, testified that the duster coat was not new, but one Scheff had always worn.

Several days after the Thallman complaint was filed, Whetstone came to Sullins' office to meet Sullins for lunch. At that time, Edmonds confronted Whetstone about the investigation. At the conclusion of the confrontation, Edmonds left the office, slamming the door behind her. After this incident, Edmonds changed her treatment toward Sullins. Prior to this time, Edmonds and Sullins had a very cordial working relationship. After the incident, Edmonds would no longer speak to Sullins unless it was absolutely necessary to do so. Edmonds frequently excluded Sullins from staff meetings and indicated to Sullins that she did not consider Sullins a part of the management team because of the Scheff incident.

Several days after the Thallman complaint was filed, DeGroot came to Sullins' office and inquired as to what Whetstone had told Sullins about the investigation. Sullins told DeGroot that she knew little about it. After this conversation, DeGroot and Ross refused to speak to Sullins.

Following the Thallman complaint, Sullins complained to Edmonds about Scheff's conduct toward her. Edmonds informed Sullins that Sullins had upset Scheff and that he was doing nothing wrong. Edmonds also stated that "it would get worse before it got better." Sullins Affidavit, ¶ 46.

Sullins also spoke to Bradley about Scheff's conduct. In their first conversation Bradley was supportive of Sullins and told her that he would speak to Scheff. There was, however, no change in Scheff's behavior, so Sullins spoke with Bradley again. He stated that he would speak to Scheff again, as well as to Edmonds, Ross, and DeGroot. One evening when Sullins left work, she found feces had been spread on the door handle of Whetstone's car, which Sullins had driven to work. Sullins reported this to Edmonds and to building security.

As a part of the investigation of the Thallman complaint, OIG interviewed Thallman, Sullins, Scheff, Schuh, Sandidge, Roberts, Velva Fletcher, Pam DuFour, Ross, and DeGroot. All of these individuals were employees in the hospital unit. At the conclusion of the OIG investigation, the Department proposed suspending Scheff for five calendar days for conduct unbecoming a state employee and discourteous treatment of co-workers. Scheff's suspension was eventually reduced to a four calendar day suspension. Although OIG customarily prepares a written report at the conclusion of a sexual harassment investigation to be submitted to the EEO office, no final report was prepared of the Thallman investigation.

In February 2001, Sullins filed a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights alleging sex discrimination and retaliation claims against the Department and Scheff.*fn2 In early March 2001, Sullins again spoke with Bradley regarding Scheff's conduct. Additionally, Sullins complained to Bradley that Edmonds had been abusive toward her. Bradley stated that he did not think that anything could be done to change the situation as long as Sullins continued to work in the Bloom Building. Bradley mentioned an open position at the Department's Churchill Road facility, also in Springfield, Illinois. Sullins told Bradley that she was aware of the opening and had applied for the position. According to Sullins, the Churchill Road position was ...


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