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Alonzo v. Condell Health Network

May 30, 2007

MAY ALONZO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CONDELL HEALTH NETWORK, INC. AND CONDELL MEDICAL CENTER, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge James B. Zagel

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff May Alonzo filed suit against Defendants Condell Health Network, Inc. and Condell Medical Center, Inc. (collectively "Defendant" or "Condell"), alleging employment discrimination based on race or national origin and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. §1981. Defendant now moves for summary judgment on all counts. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

Condell hired May Alonzo in 1997 as a staff registered nurse. Over the next few years, Alonzo received several positive performance reviews and pay increases. However, beginning in 2003, Alonzo received some negative performance reviews relating to absenteeism, excessive noise, and reactive behavior. Patricia Zeller, Alonzo's supervisor, advised Alonzo in a 2003 performance review that the shift-change report*fn1 was very important to patient safety and that Alonzo herself needed to "curb reactive behavior" and "foster good communication between co-workers." On July 15, 2003, Zeller told Alonzo that she needed to be more cooperative during the shift-change report.

This case arises out of three separate disciplinary actions Condell took against Alonzo. The first was a written warning issued to Alonzo on January 28, 2004, relating to a confrontation between Alonzo and another nurse, Christine Varga. On January 24, 2004, Alonzo received a shift-change report from Varga. Alonzo was asking questions about a patient that Varga thought were unnecessary and to which Varga did not know the answer. Both nurses became upset and Alonzo walked away before the report was completed. Varga reported the incident to Zeller the next day. Zeller spoke with other nurses who witnessed the incident; conferred with Jann Collier-Conrad, the Human Resources Manager; and decided to discipline Alonzo. On January 28, Zeller met with Alonzo, allowed Alonzo to tell her side of the story and then gave Alonzo a written warning that Zeller had previously prepared.

The second disciplinary action was a two-day suspension and ninety days of probation. Condell imposed this upon Alonzo within two weeks of the first action. Zeller gave Alonzo her 2004 performance review on February 2, 2004. The review had been prepared during December 2003 and January 2004. Based on this review, Zeller placed Alonzo on a 90-day performance improvement plan. On January 30, prior to the two-day suspension, Alonzo submitted two letters to Vice President of Nursing, Patricia Buckley. One letter complained that she had been the victim of a pattern of discrimination against "people with unassertive culture" and asked that the disciplinary action imposed on her be investigated. In the other letter, Alonzo gave her version of the incident that led to the first disciplinary action. Buckley referred the letters to Human Resources. Collier-Conrad investigated the incident from February 3 through February 6. Collier-Conrad determined both that Varga's version of the events was more credible than Alonzo's version and that there had been a pattern of such behavior on Alonzo's part. Thus, based on Collier-Conrad's counsel, Zeller issued a 2-day suspension, required Alonzo to see the employee assistance program for anger management issues, and required Alonzo to work the day shift so that she could be monitored closely.

The final disciplinary action was Alonzo's termination on May 28, 2004. On February 11, Alonzo applied for a transfer to another department. However, she was told that she could not transfer at that time because of the disciplinary action. On May 26, after the 90-day performance improvement plan, Zeller positively evaluated Alonzo and offered her a permanent position on the day shift as well as a raise. Alonzo then told Zeller that she was transferring to another department. Zeller investigated this claim and found that Alonzo had not been approved for a transfer. Zeller also discovered that Alonzo had told co-workers that she was transferring, even though she had not yet been approved for a transfer. On May 28, Zeller; Collier-Conrad; and Alicia Wing, the manager of the department to which Alonzo claimed she was transferring, met with Alonzo. They discussed the transfer issue. After that meeting, Condell terminated Alonzo's employment.

Alonzo filed this suit alleging that the January 28 written warning constituted discriminatory action in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. §1981; that Condell retaliated against her by putting her on the performance improvement plan on February 2 and by suspending her on February 13; and retaliated against her by terminating her for unprofessional conduct on May 28. Alonzo also included a claim that Condell's actions violated the Illinois Human Rights Act.*fn2 Condell now moves for summary judgment on all counts.

II. DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is proper if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). See also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-323 (1986). In determining whether any genuine issue of material fact exists, I must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable and justifiable inferences in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A genuine issue of fact exists only when, based on the record as a whole, a reasonable jury could find for the non-movant. Pipitone v. United States, 180 F.3d 859, 861 (7th Cir. 1999). The non-movant must offer more than "[c]onclusory allegations, unsupported by specific facts" in order to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 773 (7th Cir. 2003) (citing Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990)).

Under Section 1981, "[a]ll persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right . . . to the full and equal benefit of all laws . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens." 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer "to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Since both Title VII and Section 1981 claims are analyzed in the same manner, I will use one standard for each count. Eiland v. Trinity Hosp., 150 F.3d 747, 750 (7th Cir. 1998).

A. Count I - January 28th Written Warning

To survive summary judgment on the first count, which alleges discrimination based on race or national origin, Alonzo must prove her claim in one of two methods: the direct method or the indirect method. "Under the direct method of proof . . . the plaintiff may show (either through direct or circumstantial evidence) that the employer's decision to take the adverse job action was motivated by an impermissible purpose, such as [ ] race or national origin or age." Cianci v. Pettibone Corp., 152 F.3d 723, 727 (7th Cir. 1998) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Alternatively, because of the difficulty in directly proving discrimination, a plaintiff may rely on the burden-shifting approach established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Alonzo relies on this second approach for Count I.

Under the McDonnel Douglas standard, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence. See Gonzalez v. Ingersoll Mill. Mach. Co., 133 F.3d 1025, 1032 (7th Cir. 1998). In order to establish a prima facie case, a plaintiff must show (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) that she was performing her job satisfactorily (or meeting her employer's legitimate expectations); (3) that she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that other employees not in the protected class were treated more favorably. Id. If Alonzo is able to establish a prima facie case, then the burden shifts to Condell to articulate a valid, non-discriminatory reason for its action. See DeLuca v. Winer Industries, 53 F.3d 793, 797 (7th Cir. ...


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