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Sinio v. McDonald's Corp.

March 19, 2007

LEILA SINIO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MCDONALD'S CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Leila Sinio ("Sinio") sued McDonald's Corporation ("McDonald's"), her former employer, for, inter alia, employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (2006)) ("Title VII"). Sinio alleges that McDonald's discriminated against her because she is Asian-American and terminated her employment after she complained about the discriminatory conduct. On May 16, 2005, this court granted in part and denied in part McDonald's motion to dismiss. See Sinio v. McDonald's Corp., 04 C 4161, 2005 WL 1311131, at *1 (N.D. Ill. May 16, 2005). Sinio's remaining claims are for race discrimination in violation of Title VII ("Count I"); retaliation in violation of Title VII ("Count II"); violation of the Illinois Personnel Record Review Act, 820 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 40/0.01 to -13 (West 1999 & Supp. 2006) ("Count IV"); intentional misrepresentation ("Count V"); breach of oral contract ("Count VII"); and negligent misrepresentation ("Count IX"). McDonald's has moved for summary judgment as to each of these claims. For the reasons set forth below, McDonald's motion is granted as to Count V, Count VII, and Count IX, and denied as to Count I, Count II, and Count IV.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

Sinio is an Asian-American woman who is trained as an accountant. She received a bachelor's degree in accounting from Dominican University in May of 2000 and shortly thereafter began working as an accountant and bookkeeper for a retail company. She applied for a job with McDonald's, a corporation engaged in the food industry, in early March of 2001. Sinio was interviewed by Debbie Ekhomu ("Ekhomu"), an African-American woman who was the director of McDonald's accounting center in Oak Brook, Illinois ("OAC") at the time. Sinio's original application for hire with McDonald's, which was kept on file with McDonald's Human Resources Department, clearly states that her ethnicity is Asian-American. McDonald's hired Sinio to work at the OAC as a financial analyst, and Sinio remained in this position for approximately ten months. The record reflects that Sinio's performance during that period of time was satisfactory.

On or around January 13, 2002, Sinio was transferred to McDonald's Real Estate Franchise accounting group ("REF"), also located in Oak Brook, Illinois, to begin working as a Home Office Representative ("HO Rep"). She was assigned to a subgroup within the REF referred to as the West Division, which performed accounting functions for franchised and corporately owned restaurants located in the western United States. At the REF, Sinio's direct supervisor was Laura Fink ("Fink"), a Caucasian woman. Fink reported to Karen Crawford ("Crawford"), an African-American woman who was the manager of the West Division. Crawford in turn reported to Ekhomu, who transferred from the OAC to the REF around the same time that Sinio did to become the director of the REF.*fn2 Sinio had three co-workers who were also employed as HO Reps in the West Division: Antoinette Brown*fn3 ("Brown"), an African American woman, Issam AbuGhallous ("Abu-Ghallous"), a Palestinian man, and Ada Novi*fn4 ("Novi"), a Caucasian woman. Each HO Rep in the West Division was responsible for a certain region; Sinio was responsible for the Sierra Pacific region, excluding Hawaii, and the Greater Southwest region. In must also be noted that all of the African-American employees who worked in accounting at the REF, regardless of rank, were members of an African-American networking organization designed to help African-American employees achieve promotions.

As a HO Rep, Sinio was responsible for communicating with and performing accounting functions for employees of McDonald's and its franchisees in the regions to which Sinio was assigned; a wide variety of job duties was included in this job description. At the beginning of her employment at the REF, Sinio and several other HO Reps went through a ninety-day training program designed to train them how to perform their various job duties. The training program was conducted by Shirley Parks ("Parks"), an African-American McDonald's employee, and consisted of both group classes and one-on-one sessions. During her deposition, Parks testified that the individual training she provided to Sinio during this time was similar to the training she provided to the other HO Reps, including Brown, and that Sinio was progressing at approximately the same rate as the other trainees. Parks also testified that while the formal training period lasted ninety days, it typically took HO Reps about six months to become proficient at all of their job responsibilities.

On April 8, 2002, while Sinio was still undergoing her initial training, Fink met with Sinio, Brown, Abu-Ghallous, and Novi to divide up Novi's assignments because Novi was going to be on vacation. At that meeting, Fink also discussed general concerns with the West Division, including complaints that had been made by the HO Reps' customers. For example, customers had complained that the HO Reps were not acknowledging or returning voice-mail and e-mail messages promptly and were not processing their requests in a timely manner. Fink also discussed particular areas of concern pertaining to each HO Rep. With respect to Sinio, Fink noted that Sinio's ninety-day review was approaching, discussed several complaints that she had received from customers, and identified an action plan to help Sinio accomplish specific goals (most of which were customer service issues). At some point in this general time period-although the record does not reflect whether it was directly in response to the complaints Fink discussed with Sinio at the April 8th meeting-Sinio complained to Fink that her difficulties were the result of an uneven workload distribution among the HO Reps. According to Sinio, she told Fink that she was being discriminated against based on her race because the other HO Reps, who were not Asian-American, were treated more favorably.*fn5 These complaints became commonplace during the remainder of Sinio's employment at the REF.

On May 13, 2002, Sinio received her Ninety-Day Performance Appraisal Summary ("PAS I"), which was signed by both Fink and Crawford. The PAS I discussed certain aspects of the HO Rep job that Sinio should continue to improve, such as customer service. The PAS I also stated that Sinio "has met the minimum expectations of the Home Office Representative position," "has gained an understanding of her job responsibilities and is exhibiting the skills necessary to perform her job," and "has done a good job of keeping her supervisor informed of her training/work progress and any issues that she has confronted." Pl.'s Compendium, Tab B Ex. 9. According to the PAS I, Sinio "has the potential to be a strong member within the HO rep group." Id. At her deposition, Crawford testified that Sinio's PAS I was a typical ninety-day evaluation.

At some point shortly after receiving the PAS I, Sinio met with Crawford to discuss her perception that the workload was not distributed evenly among the HO Reps. Sinio complained that Fink had not addressed the situation, and Crawford agreed to look into the workload distribution. Crawford analyzed the division of labor between the West Division HO Reps, and then informed Sinio that the workload distribution was going to stay as it was. Over the next several months, Sinio continued to complain about the regional distribution of the West Division, repeatedly stating that it reflected racial discrimination. These complaints were made to Fink, Crawford, Ekhomu, and Carol Davis ("Davis"), a Caucasian woman employed as McDonald's Director of Human Resources. Sinio claims that, despite her repeated complaints regarding racial discrimination, her claims were never properly investigated.

In late May of 2002, Chrystal Wilson ("Wilson"), who is African-American, applied for a supervisory training job with McDonald's. Wilson is the stepsister of a man with whom Crawford was having a personal relationship, and Crawford served as a reference on Wilson's application for employment. Wilson was interviewed on July 1, 2002, by Ekhomu, Crawford, and Fink. After the interview, they decided to keep Wilson's application under consideration even though they determined that she was not qualified for a position as a supervisor.

In late June of 2002, Sinio requested a meeting with Ekhomu to discuss her concerns about performance issues and the workload for West Division HO Reps. At the meeting, Sinio raised the same complaints regarding her workload that she had made to her other supervisors, and asked Ekhomu to transfer her back to the OAC. When Ekhomu denied her request, Sinio pointed out that other employees had been allowed such a transfer. Ekhomu told Sinio that she could not transfer back to the OAC until she had been at the REF for at least eighteen months, but told Sinio that she would ask Fink or Crawford to look into the workload distribution again.*fn6

On July 9, 2002, Ekhomu met with Davis to discuss Sinio's situation. Ekhomu told Davis that Sinio had been a good employee at the OAC, but that she had refused Sinio's request for a transfer. Ekhomu also told Davis that Sinio had complained about her workload and that Sinio was a minority. On July 10, 2002, Ekhomu held a meeting with Crawford and Fink to discuss what to do about Sinio. Ekhomu, Crawford, and Fink decided to put Sinio on a thirty-day "Goals and Objectives Program" (the "Program"). Def.'s Local Rule 56.1(a)(3) Statement of Material Facts 5. Under the Program, Sinio was given thirty days to improve certain areas of her performance, such as customer service. However, Sinio was not informed about the Program until July 16, 2002. On that day, Sinio met with Ekhomu and Fink, who told her that she was being placed on the Program, retroactive to July 10, 2002. Ekhomu and Fink discussed the various aspects of the Program with Sinio, including the specific areas in which Sinio was expected to improve. They also told her that she was to meet with Fink each week to discuss her progress and that Fink would provide her with regular documentary updates regarding her performance.*fn7 Sinio was provided with a document setting forth the specifics of the Program, which stated:

As of Wednesday, July 10th, you will be given 30 days to improve your performance in these areas. If at any time during this process your performance deteriorates, of if you fail to improve your performance in order to meet the minimum expectations, further disciplinary action will be taken up to and including termination of your employment from McDonald's Corporation.

Pl.'s Compendium, Tab B Ex. 10. Shortly after being placed on the Program, Sinio drafted and submitted to her supervisors a written response disputing some of the performance concerns that were set forth in the document.

For the next month, Sinio continued working as a HO Rep in the West Division. She had regular progress meetings with Fink, and Fink provided Sinio with documents detailing her performance in specific areas. Sinio often wrote and submitted memoranda rebutting specific items in Fink's performance assessments. Sinio also continued to complain about the workload distribution and her perception that the inequity was based on racial discrimination. On August 7, 2002, Sinio met with Ekhomu and Fink to discuss her progress. At the meeting, Ekhomu and Fink noted that Sinio had made progress in certain areas but that improvement was still necessary, and that Sinio should be able to meet McDonald's expectations in light of additional training she had received during the preceding month.*fn8 Based on this meeting, McDonald's decided to continue with the Program. On August 16, 2002, Sinio was provided with another Performance Appraisal Summary ("PAS II"), which stated that the Program was being extended for an additional thirty days, retroactive to August 7, 2002. The PAS II noted that the weekly meetings and documentation would continue, and also stated that McDonald's would be contacting Sinio's customers to solicit feedback regarding her performance. McDonald's did indeed solicit customer feedback, and the record reflects that at least some of the feedback provided by Sinio's customers was positive. Finally, the PAS II again stated that Sinio would be subject to termination if McDonald's determined that her progress was insufficient.

Throughout the rest of August, Sinio regularly met with Fink regarding her progress and submitted memoranda responding to performance issues raised in the documents provided by Fink. Sinio also continued to raise the issue of workload distribution amongst the HO Reps, and voiced her concerns regarding racial discrimination to her supervisors. On September 13, 2002, Sinio was summoned to a conference room to meet with Ekhomu and Crawford. At the meeting, Sinio was informed that her employment was being terminated.*fn9 She was given an envelope containing a separation agreement that had been drafted by McDonald's in-house legal counsel Kathy Moran ("Moran"), asked to turn in her identification badge, and told that she would be escorted out of the building immediately. Crawford then escorted Sinio from the building and advised her to file for unemployment.

The separation agreement prepared by Moran provided that Sinio's employment would be terminated as of September 20, 2002. It stated that Sinio would be paid through that date, and that her benefits would terminate at that time. It also stated that Sinio would be paid for five accrued but unused vacation days within thirty days of her termination. The separation agreement referenced the Program and stated that Sinio was being terminated due to her failure to meet the goals set forth in the Program. However, it also provided that Sinio's termination would be treated as a resignation and that McDonald's would provide neutral job references to future employers if Sinio signed the separation agreement. Finally, the separation agreement required Sinio to relinquish any legal claim she might have against McDonald's.

On September 24, 2006, Wilson was hired as a HO Rep in the West Division, effectively taking over the position previously held by Sinio. Upon Wilson's hire, the regional distribution in the West Division was reconfigured; as a result, the workload of the HO Reps in the West Division changed. Wilson was assigned only the Pacific Northwest division, which amounted to less than half the number of stores to which Sinio had been assigned. Following her hire, Wilson had performance deficiencies similar to some of Sinio's alleged deficiencies, such as customer service issues.

Sinio never signed the separation agreement. Instead, she retained an attorney and, on September 26, 2002, requested her personnel file from McDonald's. The facts surrounding McDonald's compiling of Sinio's personnel file are confusing and full of discrepancies. It appears that Moran asked Davis for Sinio's file. Davis testified that she was the overseer of the personnel files, and that it was McDonald's policy to maintain personnel files for all of its employees. However, it appears that many of the documents that became part of the file eventually given to Sinio made their way to Davis after Sinio requested her file. Most of these documents came up the chain of command: Fink testified that she redacted client information from a number of documents given to her by Ekhomu or Crawford but that she did not give them to Davis directly; Crawford likewise testified that she did not personally send documents to Davis. Davis compiled a large number of documents into a file and gave them to Moran, who reviewed the file to make sure its contents were appropriate. Sinio was then given the file by McDonald's around October 18, 2002. The file contained more than 300 pages of documents, the majority of which reflected the final months of Sinio's employment; at her deposition, Davis testified that the nature of Sinio's file was abnormal. While the file given to Sinio was very large, it did not contain records relating to Sinio's employment at the OAC (such as performance evaluations) or any of the performance rebuttals Sinio had submitted to her supervisors. Sinio therefore sent a letter to McDonald's claiming that the file was missing information and requesting that McDonald's supplement the file. In January of 2003, McDonald's sent Sinio some additional documents, such as her original application for hire (but not the OAC materials or rebuttals). McDonald's now claims that it has given Sinio all of the personnel records in its possession.

Sinio continued to request personnel information from McDonald's through February of 2004. On April 15, 2004, Sinio filed suit against McDonald's in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. McDonald's removed the case to this court on June ...


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