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King v. City of Chicago

December 11, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Blanche M. Manning


Steve King enjoyed his job driving trucks for the City of Chicago except for the regular taunting by his supervisor, who allegedly unleashed upon him a series of racial epithets including "coon," "sambo," and "black Otis." No longer able to contain himself, King eventually responded with a series of profanities hurled at the supervisor, who suspended him. After that, King was disciplined for a variety of violations of workplace policies and was eventually terminated.

King now sues the city, contending that he was subjected to a hostile work environment on account of his race, was treated less favorably than employees who were not African-American, and that some of the discipline (including his termination) was in retaliation for reporting the discrimination he endured, all in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. In response, the city has moved for summary judgment, arguing that the alleged taunting was not hostile, that King cannot establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment, and that King cannot establish a causal connection between his complaints of discrimination and his allegedly retaliatory suspensions and discharge. For the reasons that follow, the court grants in part and denies in part the motion for summary judgment.


The following facts are undisputed except where noted. Starting in 2001, King's supervisor, Arthur Vanick, repeatedly subjected King to "numerous racial slurs and inflammatory racial comments," including "coon," "sambo," and "Otis" or "Black Otis," a reference to a "dysfunctional" character on the Andy Griffith show who "sleeps in a jail cell."*fn1 (Defendant's Response to King's Rule 56.1 Statements of Fact at ¶ 2.) Vanick also told King that "You people not only are coons. You eat coons." (Id. at ¶ 9.) During a meeting of truck drivers and tree trimmers in March 2002, Vanick likened King's prospects of being a supervisor to "you people being promised 40 acres and a mule." (Deposition of Steve King (attached as exhibit F to Defendant's Exhibits in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment) at 141:18 - 144:8.) Vanick referred to King as Otis not only in his presence, but also over the two-way radio in city-owned trucks, which was overheard by other employees. Vanick directed racial remarks at King daily.

By May 2002, King had had enough. On May 7, he told Vanick to "f*** off," and called him an "ass****" three times in the presence of other employees. Vanick responded by suspending King for three days. King subsequently filed a union grievance about the suspension. He received a hearing, but the suspension was upheld.

On June 5, 2002, King complained about the suspension a second time in a letter to a union official. In the letter, he also complained about Vanick's use of racial epithets. King followed that complaint with a letter to the city's personnel department on June 20, 2002. In that letter, King again complained about Vanick's use of the phrases "Otis" and "40 acres and a mule." That same day, King received a second three-day suspension after supervisor Gary Belak caught him watching a portable television in his city-owned truck. King admits knowing that city policy prohibited drivers from having portable televisions in their trucks, but denies that he was watching television in his truck. However, his denial is not supported by the cited portion of the record and therefore the fact is deemed admitted.

The following day, King received yet another suspension. The parties dispute what circumstances led to the suspension. According to the city, Vanick suspended King for being "belligerent and insubordinate." (Deposition of Steve King at 161:17 - 162:7.) King tells a very different story. According to King, Vanick followed King in a "menacing way" and refused to stop even after King reported him to a different supervisor. (Id. at 163:9-11.) Later that day, King wrote a second letter to the city's personnel department, updating his letter of June 20 to complain about his newest suspension. He also repeated his complaints in a July 3 letter to Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez. King was disciplined again in September 2002, when he received an oral warning for failing to wear a safety vest, and in November 2002 when he received a 1-day suspension for detaining fellow employees without authorization in an attempt to hold a meeting.

On December 4, 2002, the plaintiff filed a complaint of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the EEOC. The filing of King's complaint was followed by a rapid-fire series of additional suspensions. On December 10, 2002, he received two separate suspensions for incidents that had occurred earlier. The first suspension was for 1 day for failing to tell a supervisor on November 25, 2002, that he was leaving his truck to go to the bathroom. The second suspension was for 2 days for arriving to work late, failing to report to a supervisor, and for driving off in his city-owned truck without authorization, all of which had allegedly occurred on December 3, 2002. King denies some of the conduct and offers innocent explanations for the rest.

On December 20, 2002, supervisor Thomas Augustyniak suspected that King was drunk when he showed up to work glassy-eyed, slurred his speech, and smelled strongly of alcohol. At Augustyniak's request, Vanick observed King and also suspected that he was drunk. Augustyniak then told King to report for a drug and alcohol test, which the city contends King refused. The city contends that King then struck Augustyniak and verbally assaulted him by threatening to "f*** you, b****, I will f*** you up." King admits using profanity, but denies being drunk, refusing the drug and alcohol test, or assaulting Augustyniak.

Later that day, the city delivered to King a letter placing him on paid administrative leave until further notice. On January 21, 2003, Commissioner Sanchez sent him another letter detailing potential bases for dismissing him (refusing the drug test and assaulting his supervisor) and giving him the opportunity to respond. On January 31, 2002, the commissioner of the Streets and Sanitation department wrote to King terminating him immediately. King appealed to the city's personnel board, but the board upheld King's termination.

King filed a second charge of discrimination with the EEOC and Illinois Department of Human Rights in July 2003. The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter August 31, 2004.

In the instant suit, King alleges six counts of racial discrimination under Title VII. In Count I, he alleges that the racial slurs he endured created a hostile work environment. In Count II, he alleges that employees outside his protected class were not suspended for watching television in their city-owned trucks or for failing to wear safety gear, as he was in June and September of 2002. In Count III, King alleges that the suspensions and warnings he received beginning in June 2002 were in retaliation for complaints he filed with the city's personnel department, the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and the EEOC. In Counts IV and V, King alleges that his termination in January 31, 2003, was retaliatory and amounted to disparate treatment. Count VI, in which King alleged a violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech and free association, was previously dismissed.


A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is proper when the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of any material fact." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). "The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Valenti v. Qualex, Inc., 970 F.2d 363, 365 (7th Cir. 1992), citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Moreover, a court should grant a motion for summary judgment only when the record shows that a reasonable jury could not find for the nonmoving party. See Valenti, 970 F.2d at 365; see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

Thus, in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must show that a dispute about a genuine material fact exists; that is, the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could render a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

The nonmoving party may not merely rest upon the allegations or details in his pleading, but instead, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See ...

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