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Fragakis v. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority

June 8, 2007

JAMES FRAGAKIS, PLAINTIFF
v.
THE ILLINOIS STATE TOLL HIGHWAY AUTHORITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable David H. Coar

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before this Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Illinois State Toll Highway Authority ("Defendant" or "Tollway") against Plaintiff James Fragakis ("Plaintiff" or "Fragakis") pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff was employed by Defendant, with whom he began working in 1978 as a light equipment operator. At the time of Plaintiff's termination in 2003, he was working as Building Maintenance Manager, part of Facilities Services, a division of the Operations Department. Plaintiff's management responsibilities included the ability to independently approve expenses in amounts up to "a couple hundred dollars." At all relevant times, Fragakis reported to Facilities Services Manager Robert Smith ("Smith"), who then reported to Chief of Operational Services Paul Volpe ("Volpe"). In 2003, Tollway Executive Director Jack Hartman ("Hartman") was given a mandate from Governor Rod Blagojevich to reform the agency. As a part of this reformation effort, Volpe recommended that Plaintiff's position be eliminated to increase business efficiency, on the grounds that it was "unnecessary and redundant."

Immediately prior to Plaintiff's termination, the Tollway received a request to pay a subcontractor, Martin Concrete ("Martin"), for additional work done on a contract for improving the agency's Central Administration Building ("Martin Payment"). The main contractor under that agreement was Cantore Concrete ("Cantore"). In conjunction with this request, Plaintiff received a message from the office of an official located in Springfield, Illinois, in which he believes the caller identified himself as Senate Majority leader Vincent Demuzio (Democrat) ("Demuzio"). In this message, the man identifying himself as Demuzio encouraged Plaintiff to ensure that the additional payment was made to Martin. Plaintiff shared this message with Smith and then, at Smith's encouragement, forwarded it to Volpe as well. Volpe does not recall ever receiving this message, and he and Plaintiff never spoke about its contents. So far as Plaintiff is aware, McPartlin was never aware of the Demuzio message, and McPartlin in fact disclaims any awareness of the message. Plaintiff was never encouraged to approve the Martin payment by any Tollway employee.

On September 30, 2003, Brian McPartlin and Marilyn Johnson met with plaintiff and informed him that his position had been eliminated in conjunction with the Tollway reorganization. Plaintiff also received a letter at that meeting which conveyed the same information. In addition to the changes in Plaintiff's employment status, the reorganization resulted in the elimination of other vacant and filled positions, as well as the transfer of two employees to other departments.*fn2 At the meeting and in the letter, no mention was made of any party's political affiliation. Plaintiff was generally inactive in political activities, and other than the fact that he had worked at the Tollway during Republican-leaning years, he has no reason to believe that other employees were aware of his politics.

Around the week of October 8, 2003, Volpe met with representatives from Cantore and Martin and told them that the work in question went beyond the original contract. While the contractor and subcontractor claimed they had received written approval, Volpe told them they had failed to produce the required written authorization for the project's expansion. The original contract with Cantore had been entered into on June 27, 2002 for $107,030.00, and was paid by the Tollway. No additional payment was made to Cantore, and no direct payment was ever made to Martin.

During his employment, Plaintiff received approval for and took three training courses. Tollway initially reimbursed Plaintiff for the $449.10 he had paid in tuition for these courses. According to the Tollway's employee policy manual, employees are required to stay in their positions for two years following such training-based reimbursement. The tuition value was withheld from Plaintiff's final paycheck, apparently because he had not stayed on the requisite two years. However, on or around March 16, 2007, Defendant supplied Plaintiff with a check in order to reimburse him for the funds taken from his final paycheck.

Plaintiff first pursued this matter in state court. However, it was removed from the Circuit Court of the 12th Judicial Circuit, Will County, IL on May 6, 2005, and was assigned to this Court with the case number 05-CV-02741. This Court dismissed a majority of the counts on March 2, 2006 and, because the sole Federal grounds for the complaint therefore failed, remanded all remaining state law claims to Will County, IL. Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint that included the non-dismissed claims of breach of contract for back wages (Count VI) and retaliatory discharge under Illinois law (Count VIII), along with a new claim of retaliatory discharge under Federal law (Count IX). The matter was again removed to this Court and given the new case number 06-CV-02596.*fn3

STANDARDS

A party seeking summary judgment has the burden of showing, through "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any," that there are no genuine issues of material fact that would prevent judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). On a motion for summary judgment, courts "must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable and justifiable inferences in favor of that party." Allen v. Cedar Real Estate Group, LLP, 236 F.3d 374, 380 (7th Cir. 2001).

Even so, the non-moving party may not rest upon mere allegations in the pleadings or upon conclusory statements in affidavits; rather, he must go beyond the pleadings and support his contentions with proper documentary evidence. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). To successfully oppose the motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must do more than raise a "metaphysical doubt" as to the material facts, see Wolf v. Northwest Ind. Symphony Soc'y, 250 F.3d 1136, 1141 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation and quotation omitted), and instead must present definite, competent evidence to rebut the motion, see Albiero v. City of Kankakee, 246 F.3d 927, 932 (7th Cir.2001); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must decide, based on admissible evidence, whether any material dispute of fact exists that requires a trial. Waldridge v. Am. Hoechst Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 920 (7th Cir. 1994).

Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment against a party "who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and in which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. A non-moving party who bears the burden of proof on a specific issue must demonstrate by specific factual allegations that there is a genuine issue of material fact in dispute. McMillian v. Svetanoff, 878 F.2d 186, 188 (7th Cir.1989). This evidence provided by the non-movant must be sufficient to enable a reasonable jury to find in his or her favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). "[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

Plaintiff does not have the assistance of counsel in this matter, and has chosen instead to represent himself. This court must therefore apply "less stringent standards" than it would to "formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." See Henderson v. Sheahan, 196 F.3d 839, 845 (7th Cir.1999).

ANALYSIS

The complaint in its current form alleges that Defendant: (1) violated Plaintiff's First Amendment rights by terminating his employment in retaliation for his political views*fn4 ; (2) retaliated against him in violation of state law; and (3) breached a contract by failing to reimburse tuition expenses as required in the employee handbook.

Standard To Be Applied To Federal Claims

At the outset, this Court must clarify the federal law under which Plaintiff has brought this action. In his amended complaint, Plaintiff cites to the authority of "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1985, and 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e(a), (f) and 2000e-2(a)." However, Title VII -- and the included subsections 2000e(a), (f) and 2000e-2(a) -- do not provide a proper basis of action for this Plaintiff. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (prohibiting an employer from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin). Defendant also seeks dismissal of Plaintiff's claim under § 1985 on the grounds that political discrimination does not fall under that statute, but this issue is not so clearcut as to warrant outright grant of summary judgment on the matter. Compare Grimes v. Smith, 776 F.2d 1359 (7th Cir. 1985) (finding that political conspiracy is not appropriate for consideration underĀ§ 1985(3)) with ...


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