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Dixon v. Illinois Dep't of Natural Resources

March 31, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Proud, Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Gloria Jean Dixon, who is a black African American, filed suit pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (Doc. 1). Only plaintiff's retaliation claim against the defendant Illinois Department of Natural Resources proceeded to trial. (Doc. 87). Plaintiff generally alleges that she was terminated from her job at the Frank Holten State Park in May 2002 in retaliation for filing grievances alleging that she was subjected to a hostile environment and progressive disciplinary action. (Doc. 87, pp. 1-3).

Plaintiff testified that she began work at Frank Holten State Park in January 1999 as an office assistant, performing timekeeping, waiting on customers, answering phones, and other clerical duties. (Transcript of Trial ("Tr."), pp. 51 and 53). Plaintiff received very positive performance reviews and was promoted to office coordinator in January 2001, although she retained all of the same duties. (Tr. pp. 59-60, 62, and 64; and Plaintiff's Exhibits 5 and 54).

Just days after plaintiff's promotion, Ruth Kendall, who is light skinned and of mixed ethnicity, was hired as the assistant site superintendent at the park. (Tr. pp. 65 and 212). When Site Superintendent Curtis Gathing, who is a black African American, was not present, Kendall became the acting site superintendent and therefore had authority to supervise plaintiff. (Tr. pp. 66, 212 and 269). Gathing's regular days off work were Wednesdays and Thursdays. (Tr. pp. 66, 212and 270). Because Gathing did not type, Kendall usually did all his typing for him, including e-mail. (Tr. pp. 223, 228 and 229). The office was relatively small, and plaintiff's work area was at the front desk, and Kendall's office was only 20-25 feet away. (Tr. p. 67).

Plaintiff received a positive evaluation for the period from January 1, 2001, through May 1, 2001,although her supervisor, Curtis Gathing, testified that plaintiff and Kendall had some disagreements during that period. (Tr. pp. 271-273; and Plaintiff's Exhibit 6). On May 1, 2001, plaintiff lodged a "discrimination" complaint with Curtis Gathing, which actually only referred to a "hostile environment." (Tr. p. 68; (for reference, see Doc. 72, Exhibit 22.)). According to plaintiff, just after she filed her grievance, she considered Kendall to be "cool and aloof," and not very nice, which made it difficult for plaintiff to work. (Tr. p. 69).

Later in May 2001, plaintiff was charged with failure to perform timekeeping duties, improper remarks, workplace political activity, unauthorized absences and insubordination. (Plaintiff's Exhibits 8 and 9). The charges all stemmed from disagreements with or about Kendall, and charges initiated upon Kendall's complaints to Gathing. (Tr. pp. 70, 83-88, 215-217, 221-225, 231 and 274). As a result, in June 2001 plaintiff was given a written reprimand regarding failure to perform timekeeping duties and use of inappropriate remarks. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 10). Kendall and plaintiff continued to spar over timekeeping issues and in September 2001 plaintiff was suspended for one day for false statements and failure to follow instructions (Tr. pp. 89, 99, 101-107; and Plaintiff's Exhibit 16; see also Plaintiff's Exhibit 19). Plaintiff filed a contract grievance regarding her suspension, which she contends was done to "embarrass her" and cause "more stress and hostility." (Plaintiff's Exhibit 17).

Kendall overheard plaintiff discussing her one day suspension with her sister, Faye Cystrunk, and Kendall told plaintiff to stop talking about her. (Tr. pp. 107-108, 237-238). Cystrunk then came to the park office, purportedly to deliver some curtains to plaintiff, and a dispute erupted involving plaintiff, Cystrunk, Kendall and Gathing, wherein Cystrunk commented to Gathing, Jean is just a black woman trying to make a living," to which Kendall replied, "What am I." (Tr. pp. 109, and 238-239). The conversation went downhill from there, and plaintiff's and Kendall's respective worth as Christians was debated. (Tr. pp. 109-110). In December 2001 plaintiff received a ten day suspension (later reduced to five days) for the September 13th incident involving plaintiff's sister. (Plaintiff's Exhibits 19 and 20; see also Plaintiff's Exhibit 24). Plaintiff grieved the ten day suspension, for unspecified reasons. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 21).

Plaintiff's year-end performance evaluation for 2001 was, admittedly, procedurally flawed, but it generally noted that plaintiff needed to improve. (Tr. pp. 292-296, and 299).

On March 8, 2002, plaintiff arrived at work to find two notes from Kendall; one regarding telephone etiquette, the other raising a time sheet issue. (Tr. pp. 120-123). An argument between plaintiff and Kendall ensued, and Kendall ordered plaintiff to go home. (Tr. pp. 124-125, and 242). As plaintiff was walking to her vehicle, she noticed that Gathing was pulling up to the office, so she waited to speak with him. (Tr. p. 125). Gathing confirmed that plaintiff had to go home. (Tr. p. 125). Before plaintiff left, another argument erupted, wherein plaintiff admittedly told Kendall, "Heifer, if you wash your hair and put on some makeup maybe you'll feel better." (Tr. p. 126). Kendall acknowledges responding, "Would you quit acting like an old hag." (Tr. p. 244). According to Kendall, plaintiff also stated, "Bring it on, fire me. Go ahead. Go home and call your white mama. Go home and raise your kids." (Tr. pp. 254 and 355). Plaintiff also stated that she was not going home, but when Gathing wrote her a note confirming that she was to leave, she agreed to depart. (Tr. pp. 286-287 and 363). Park police were summoned due to the commotion. (Tr. p. 363). Plaintiff left, only to return a few minutes later to drop off some items and get a soda from the refrigerator. (Tr. p. 187 and 287). Charges were brought by Gathing and plaintiff was suspended for 30 days, pending discharge proceedings. (Tr. p. 289; and Plaintiff's Exhibits 25 and 26). Plaintiff's discharge for conduct unbecoming an employee and failure to follow instructions was formalized May 7, 2002. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 24).

Site superintendent Curtis Gathing, Regional Land Manager Richard Messinger, Director Brent Manning, and Labor Relations Administrator Edward Jackson all testified about the investigation and decision to terminate plaintiff. (Tr. pp. 288-290, 337-338, 343-346, 349, 355, 363, 388, and 392-396). Kendall was also disciplined for the incident. (Tr. p. 399).

At the close of plaintiff's case-in-chief, the defendant Department moved for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). (Transcript of Trial ("Tr."), pp. 412-421; and Doc. 99). Plaintiff responded orally to the motion and was allotted time within which to file a written response. (Tr. pp. 424-434; and Doc. 101). However, the Court provisionally granted defendant's Rule 50 motion and concluded trial. (Tr. 436-443).

The Court's provisional ruling can be summarized as follows. At the start of trial the parties stipulated that a May 1, 2001, contract grievance was a protected act for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). (Tr. pp. 4-5). However, during trial it came to light that the underlying complaint plaintiff filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") limited the relevant time frame to events occurring after December 1, 2001. (See Plaintiff's Exhibit 28; and Tr. pp. 70-77). The Court further found that a possible alternate triggering act, a December 28, 2001, grievance fails to mention gender or race and, therefore, is not protected activity for purposes of triggering Title VII protection. (See Plaintiff's Exhibit 21). Moreover, none of the evidence at trial suggested that the hostile work environment plaintiff complained about had any relation to race or gender discrimination by the defendant Department. Any racial and/or gender animus flowed from plaintiff. This was clearly just two people who could not get along, and the resulting discipline meted out. No questions of material fact or credibility existed to preclude entry of judgment at the close of plaintiff's case-in-chief.

After consideration of plaintiff's brief in opposition to defendant's Rule 50 motion, the Court is not swayed from its preliminary conclusion that the defendant Department is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Court hereby ADOPTS the rationale offered at ...

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