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James v. Illinois Dep't of Human Services

March 6, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer


Plaintiff Rose James claims the Illinois Department of Human Services discriminated against her on the basis of her race, African-American, and retaliated against her for complaints of discrimination, when it disciplined and ultimately discharged her from her support service position at the W. A. Howe Developmental Center. Defendant has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons stated here, the motion is granted.


Plaintiff was hired by the Illinois Department of Human Services on October 16, 1990. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 3, citing Affidavit of Robert Schneider, Exhibit D-1 to Def.'s 56.1.) She worked initially as a Support Service Worker and, after June 2000, as a Support Service Lead in the Dietary section of the W. A. Howe Developmental Center ("Howe Center"). (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 4,5, citing Deposition of Rose James, Exhibit C to Def.'s 56.1, at 18-19, 20.) The Howe Center is a 24-hour transition facility for approximately 500 developmentally disabled adults. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 6, citing Schneider Aff. ¶ 2.) As a lead worker, Plaintiff was responsible for supervising support service workers in the tray line, "warewash" operations, and portioning of food. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 4, citing James Dep. at 18-19.)

Disciplinary Practices

Guidelines concerning the rights and responsibilities of Howe Center employees and managers are set forth in the Employee Handbook and the union agreement; Robert Schneider, the Director of Nutrition Management, testified that new employees are expected to familiarize themselves with the policies and procedures at the Howe Center by reviewing the Handbook and the union agreement. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 11, citing Deposition of Christine Hammond, Exhibit E to Def.'s 56.1, at 14-15; Pltf.'s 56.1 Add'l ¶ 6, citing Deposition of Robert Schneider, Exhibit D to Def.'s 56.1.) In addition, Vieddia Jackson (another Service Support Lead worker) testified that there are certain "unwritten rules," though she did not offer any specific examples, and Dietary Manager Michael Jankowski confirmed that "[n]ot every instance in every situation is covered in the Employee Handbook." (Deposition of Vieddia Jackson, Exhibit B to Pltf.'s 56.1 Add'l, at 9-10; Deposition of Michael Jankowski, Exhibit G to Def.'s 56.1, at 8.) Defendant has a "zero-tolerance" policy for violence and considers a threat of physical harm to constitute "violence." (Pltf.'s 56.1 Add'l ¶ 10, 11, citing Jackson Dep. at 10-11, 13; Deposition of Mark Connell, Exhibit F to Def.'s 56.1 at 12-13; Schneider Dep. at 14; Hammond Dep. at 13.) Employees who exhibit violent behavior are assigned to an "anger management program." (Pltf.'s 56.1 Add'l ¶ 12, citing Hammond Dep. at 18.)

Dietary Manager Michael Jankowski testified that managers' ability to distinguish certain types of misconduct has improved over time. (Jankowski Dep. at 21.) The parties agree that decisions about whether an employee should be disciplined, and what type of discipline is appropriate, depends on the nature of the violation and the employee's disciplinary history. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 12, citing Schneider Aff. ¶ 9; Affidavit of Christine Hammond, Exhibit E-1 to Def.'s 56.1, ¶ 9; see also Deposition of Lois Wengelewski, Exhibit H to Def.'s 56.1, at 49 (managers would consider "the way [a] verbal threat was made or the context" in determining what discipline is appropriate).

Discipline is ordinarily progressive, except that where an employee has been disciplined once but has gone several years without further discipline, a disciplinary infraction might be treated less severely. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 14, citing Wengelewski Dep. at 47.)

Dietary Managers--including, during Plaintiff's employment, Christine Hammond, Michael Jankowski, Lois Wengelewski, and Mark Connell--reported to Robert Schneider, the Director of the Nutrition Management Department, and were responsible for scheduling and supervising workers, keeping time records, conducting evaluations, and answering the phone. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 7-9, citing Schneider Aff. ¶¶ 3, 5, and Connell Dep. at 8.) Dietary Managers also made recommendations with respect to discipline, but the ultimate decision regarding whether and how severely an employee should be disciplined was made by Schneider, in consultation with the Department of Human Resources. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 13, 16, citing Schneider Aff. ¶¶ 6-17, Jankowski Dep., at 6-7, 51, Hammond Aff. ¶ 7.) Jankowski testified that "horse trading," or negotiations between the workers' union and managers, could result in an adjustment to a disciplinary measure. (Jankowski Dep. at 36.)*fn2

Before an employee is disciplined, he or she is given a notice and entitled to a pre-disciplinary meeting. Based on information presented at the meeting, a decision is made about whether to proceed with discipline. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 15, citing Hammond Aff. ¶ 6.)

Plaintiff's Disciplinary History*fn3

Each of Plaintiff's annual performance evaluations from 1992 through 2002 reflected concerns regarding "human relations" issues, including "personal problems" with co-workers and managers and with "taking and giving orders." Plaintiff was counseled to "chang[e] her approach to one of non-confrontation," to "stay[] focused on her work and not worry about what her peers and co-workers are doing," was warned that her behavior was "not acceptable," and was repeatedly marked as "need[ing] improvement" in "human relations." (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 17-23, citing Appendix 1 to James Dep., Bates Numbers 149-207.)

Plaintiff's interpersonal difficulties resulted in discipline on several occasions. In March 1994, she received a five-day suspension for "unbecoming conduct" after she reportedly asked another worker, "Who the f-are you . . . You want to whip my ass?" At about the same time, Plaintiff said she wanted to bring a gun to work and shoot a co-worker, Brenita Hughes. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 24, citing James Dep. at 59-61; 3/24/94 disciplinary notice, Appendix 3 to James Dep.) Dietary Manager Lois Wengelewski conducted a "management discussion" with Plaintiff on August 2, 1995, to discuss disruptive comments Plaintiff had made: "These white people do what they want," and "White people are nasty." (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 26, citing James Dep. at 140-41, Appendix 2 to James Dep., Bates Number 2254, Schneider Aff. ¶ 14.) Two months later, Ms. Wengelewski again counseled Plaintiff about "respect and interaction with other people." (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 27, citing James Dep. at 141-42, Appendix 2 to James Dep., Bates Number 2255.)

Beginning in 1997, Plaintiff received disciplinary suspensions of increasing length. In February 1997, she received a six-day suspension when she became argumentative and loud in refusing a work assignment; Plaintiff denies the alleged misconduct, but acknowledges that she was disciplined. (Pltf.'s 56.1 Response ¶ 28; James Dep. at 69-70, 73.)*fn4 In June 1997, Plaintiff received a ten-day suspension after a co-worker reported hearing Plaintiff make derogatory comments about the co-worker, her husband, and other employees. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 29, citing James Dep. at 74-75, Appendix 5 to James Dep.) Plaintiff denies the misconduct, but acknowledges the co-worker's report resulted in the discipline. (Pltf.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 29, citing James Dep. at 78-80.) In May 1998, Plaintiff received a 12-day disciplinary suspension for unbecoming conduct.

(Def.'s 56.1¶ 31.)*fn5 Plaintiff denies having engaged in any such misconduct. (Pltf.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 31, citing James Dep. at 87-88.) In May 2000, Plaintiff was suspended for 12 days after an incident in the ladies room with a co-worker in which she was accused of instigating a "loud, shouting, profanity-ridden incident." (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 32, citing Appendix 7 to James Dep.) Plaintiff acknowledges this was the stated reason for her suspension, but denies that she was responsible for the profanity. (Pltf.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 32, James Dep. at 98-102.) She notes, further, that the co-worker involved in the incident, also an African-American, told Plaintiff she would "put her foot in [Plaintiff's] ass," but was apparently not disciplined. (Pltf.'s 56.1 Add'l ¶ 17, citing James Dep. at 96-100.)*fn6

Three months later, in August 2000, Plaintiff was again suspended, this time for 18 days, after she allegedly shook her finger in the face of a Dietary Manager, yelled at him, left her work area without authorization, and later abandoned an overtime assignment without authorization. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 33, citing James Dep. at 112-14, Appendix 8 to James Dep.) Plaintiff acknowledges these reasons were given for her discipline, but again denies any wrongdoing. (Pltf.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 33, citing James Dep. at 108-09, 118-19.) In October 2001, Plaintiff was suspended for 30 days for argumentative and insubordinate comments to co-workers and supervisors. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 34, citing James Dep. at 128-29, 131, 132-33, Appendix 9 to James Dep.) Although Plaintiff purports to deny these charges, (Pltf.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 34), she in fact acknowledges having used certain expressions cited in the disciplinary notice: She told co-worker Vieddia Jackson, "I'm 47 years old, my momma is dead and my daddy don't work here in the tray line." ...

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