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Gripper v. City of Springfield

March 14, 2007

SARAH GRIPPER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

The City's motion for summary judgment is allowed and judgment is entered in favor of the City of Springfield.

Let's look now at the facts.

I. BACKGROUND

This is a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in which Plaintiff Sarah Gripper, an African-American, has asserted claims for racial discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Plaintiff was employed by Defendant City of Springfield, Illinois, from May 25, 1995 through September 30, 2003. On September 30, she was laid off from her position as a grants technician, which was a grant-funded position.

The reason given for the lay-off was that funding for the position was no longer available. The Plaintiff claims she was told that there were no other positions available for her within the City government. The City maintains that Gripper never applied for a position within the City, nor was she prevented from doing so. The Plaintiff alleges that white employees of the City whose job positions were grant funded and whose funding expired were either provided with alternative positions within the City government or alternative sources of funding for the position.

The Plaintiff states that at the time of her lay-off, she was the only employee of the administrative section of the Department of Public Works for the City who was of African-American ethnicity. Matt Hitzemann, who is white, was at all relevant times employed by the Department of Public Works for the City as its Fiscal Director. The Plaintiff alleges that in the Spring of 2003, she was discussing with Hitzemann the grant which Gripper managed and was attempting to cause Hitzemann to comply with certain grant requirements so that funds for such grant would be released by the Illinois Department of Transportation to the City. Gripper asserts that the City had not received funds for such grant since February 2003 because Hitzemann had not complied with certain grant requirements. According to the Plaintiff, it was during this conversation that Hitzemann, in the presence of other employees, called her a "stupid black bitch." She reported this comment to Kim Wonnell, who was the Personnel Manager in the City's Human Resources Department.

The Plaintiff also informed her supervisor, Richard Berning, about Hitzemann's comment. Gripper claims Berning told her that Hitzemann talks to everyone like that, to which Gripper replied that Hitzemann could not talk to everyone like that because not everyone who worked there is black. The Plaintiff alleges that soon after she made these complaints about Hitzemann's comment, Hitzemann again called her a "stupid black bitch." She reported this comment to Kendra Davis, who also worked in the Human Resources Department as its Assistant Director.

The Plaintiff further alleges that in August 2003, she reported Hitzemann's comments to Todd Renfrow, who was then the Director of CWLP and the Public Works Division for the City. Although the City claims it investigated the complaint made by Gripper and determined that there was no evidence to support the allegation, the Plaintiff contends that the City took no action in response to Gripper's complaints. Her complaints about treatment based on race were ignored.

The parties agree there is no dispute that the ending of the Plaintiff's grant-funded position had nothing to do with retaliation or racial discrimination. It also had nothing to do with Plaintiff's work performance. That position ended solely because the grant ended. Gripper notes that she does not claim that the ending of that position was due to retaliation or racial discrimination.

The Plaintiff states that her complaint is that she was not retained as an employee by the City after the grant-funded position ended. First, the failure to retain her as an employee was in retaliation for her recent complaints that she had been called a "stupid black bitch" by Hitzemann, her superior, on two occasions. Second, unlike Gripper, white employees were routinely provided with other jobs when their grant funding ended. The Plaintiff alleges that all white employees whose grant funding ended during Mayor Timothy Davlin's administration were retained. The Plaintiff asserts that she did not apply for any of these jobs because when she mentioned that she was interested in continuing her employment with the City in one of the ten or eleven positions for which she believes she was qualified, Larry Selinger, the City's Director of Human Resources responded, "There's no job openings for you," stressing the word "you." Gripper states that she thought it would have been futile to apply. Moreover, other employees whose grants expired were not required to apply for another job.

The Plaintiff alleges that with respect to those issues, there are numerous factual disputes which preclude summary judgment.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Summary Judgment Standard

The entry of summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with any affidavits, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A "material fact" is a fact which may affect the outcome of the litigation, given the substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). There is a "genuine issue" of material fact when a reasonable juror could find that the evidence supports a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. "Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322. If a defendant can show the absence of some fact that the plaintiff must prove at trial, then the plaintiff must produce evidence, and not merely restate his allegations, to show that a genuine issue exists. Sartor v. Spherion Corp., 388 F.3d 275, 278 (7th Cir. 2004).

B. Policy or Custom for Municipal Liability Under Section1983

The City contends that it is entitled to summary judgment on the Plaintiff's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because she is unable to show a constitutional deprivation caused by an official policy or custom of racial discrimination by the City against African-Americans. Moreover, Gripper is unable to show that Hitzemann was a person with final policymaking authority. The City asserts that it has not been deliberately indifferent to problems of race discrimination. The City's Civil Service Commission adopted rules prohibiting race discrimination, authorizing employees to file complaints, and establishing a procedure to investigate such complaints. The City further contends that Gripper cites only herself as an example as someone who has complained about racial slurs allegedly being made without remedial action being taken by the City. Moreover, the City claims the complaint was taken seriously and officials investigated Plaintiff's allegation that she was called a derogatory name.

In contending that there is a policy and practice of racial discrimination by the City, the Plaintiff relies in part on the deposition testimony of Letitia Dewith-Anderson, an African-American, who was hired as Mayor Davlin's Chief of Staff in April 2003. She testified that there is racism in the City government. In August 2003, Ms. Dewith-Anderson's title was changed from Chief of Staff to Executive Assistant. After this change, she claims that she was no longer allowed to attend meetings. Moreover, although Ms. Dewith-Anderson always ...


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