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Fluckes v. Johnny Rockets Group

December 10, 2008

ALEXANDER FLUCKES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE JOHNNY ROCKETS GROUP, INC., DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This employment discrimination case was filed by a former employee of The Johnny Rockets Group, Inc. ("Johnny Rockets" or "Defendant"). Plaintiff Alexander Fluckes began his employment with Johnny Rockets in August 1995, at its Skokie, Illinois restaurant. Fluckes received several promotions during his employment, rising through the ranks from server, to cook, to supervisor, to assistant manager, and then finally to general manager. He was terminated on March 9, 2006, following an internal company investigation, concluding that Fluckes violated numerous Johnny Rockets policies and procedures, including: violation of the sexual harassment policy, violation of the non-fraternization policy, unacceptable conduct, and falsification of company documents. Fluckes, a black male of American national origin, alleges that Defendant's investigation into his actions was deficient because it was motivated impermissibly by numerous forms of discriminatory animus. Further, Fluckes alleges that he was fired after bringing his concerns of discrimination to his superiors, thus constituting retaliation. Johnny Rockets moves for summary judgment on Fluckes' Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 discrimination and retaliation claims, arguing that: (1) Fluckes was not meeting Defendant's legitimate job expectations; (2) Fluckes cannot identify any similarly situated employees who were treated more favorably than he; and (3) the proffered reasons for Fluckes' termination were not pretextual. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is granted.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Defendant Johnny Rockets is a restaurant chain that operates old-fashioned malt shop motif restaurants throughout the nation, including the one in which Plaintiff Fluckes was employed in Skokie, Illinois. Johnny Rockets promoted Fluckes to the position of general manager of its Skokie restaurant on October 28, 2002. As general manager, Fluckes' responsibilities included managing the restaurant's staff, supervisors, and assistant managers; enforcing Johnny Rockets' policies and procedures, including the policies and procedures contained in Defendant's Employee Handbook; training employees; and adhering to Johnny Rockets' policies and procedures. Fluckes' direct superior was district manager William Hart.

Johnny Rockets provided each of its employees, including Fluckes, with a copy of its Employee Handbook. The handbook outlined Defendant's various policies and procedures. Pertinent here are Johnny Rockets' policies relating to employee time records, fraternization, overtime pay, and sexual harassment. Johnny Rockets' maintained a policy that forbade employees from tampering with any employees' time record. According to Defendant's nonfraternization policy, a manager was forbidden from fraternizing or becoming romantically involved with other managers or with subordinate employees within his chain of command. With regard to overtime pay, Johnny Rockets maintained limits on the number of overtime hours that any employee could work. As with other policies, Fluckes was responsible for enforcing the overtime policy. Finally, the company's sexual harassment policy prohibited harassment and required prompt investigation of allegations of sexual harassment. The handbook explained that Johnny Rockets would take disciplinary action, up to and including termination, as needed to address violations of its various policies. The undisputed facts show that Fluckes understood that Defendant expected him to adhere to the policies contained in the handbook and that Fluckes executed an acknowledgment of receipt of the handbook.

In February 2006, an assistant manager of the Skokie Johnny Rockets restaurant, Danielle Gonzalzles, contacted Hart, indicating that she needed to speak with him during his next visit to the Skokie restaurant regarding certain "issues" taking place at the restaurant.*fn1 On March 2, 2006, Hart went to the Skokie restaurant and spoke with Gonzalzles, who informed Hart that Fluckes had committed several policy violations. Specifically, Gonzalzles alleged that Fluckes sexually harassed her on two occasions in January 2006 by touching her posterior, left the restaurant unattended on numerous occasions for hours at a time, and clocked into work as a server under his wife's name while on duty as general manager.*fn2 After securing Gonzalzles' allegations in writing, Hart immediately commenced an investigation into her allegations.

Hart met with Fluckes on the following day, March 3, 2006, to discuss Gonzalzles' allegations. During that meeting, Plaintiff admitted that Tiwanna Jackson was his wife and that she had worked at the Skokie restaurant in late December 2005 and possibly in early January 2006. Fluckes denied Gonzalzles' allegation of sexual harassment. At the conclusion of the meeting, Hart suspended Fluckes pending an investigation into Gonzalzles' allegations.

Hart then proceeded with the investigation by interviewing ten additional employees of the Skokie restaurant. The witness interviews corroborated some, but not all, of Gonzalzles' allegations. First, with regard to Gonzalzles' sexual harassment allegation, one employee, server Ashley Yalibut, reported to Hart that she witnessed Fluckes touch Gonzalzles' posterior on one of the two alleged occasions. Next, with respect to allegations that Plaintiff clocked in as a server while on duty as a manager, one interviewee, server Paola Apolinar, indicated that she and other employees were aware of Fluckes clocking in as a server under the name "Jwan." Hart learned that "Jwan" was a nickname for Fluckes' wife, Tiwanna Jackson. Several interviewees reflected that Plaintiff's wife had worked at the Skokie restaurant during December 2005, but none of them had knowledge of her working during January 2006. Hart checked Johnny Rockets' employee time record system, which indicated that Jackson was clocked in for fourteen days during the period from December 26, 2005, through January 22, 2006, and that Fluckes had not terminated Jackson's employment until March 2, 2006, which was the same date that Hart commenced his investigation into Fluckes' violations of company policies. Hart was unable to conclude from his investigation that Fluckes had left the store unattended as alleged by Gonzalzles.

During the course of his investigation, Hart also learned of other violations of Johnny Rockets' policies occurring at the restaurant. Apolinar told Hart that part-time supervisor and server Jose Escalante's wife worked at the restaurant and that Escalante also had been clocking in under his wife's name while she was out on maternity leave. Escalante admitted to the allegation against him, explaining that he had clocked in under his wife's name because he was approaching his own overtime limit. Additionally, Escalante reflected that Fluckes was aware of Escalante's actions and had even given him permission to do so. Hart suspended Escalante for violating the company's policies concerning overtime pay, fraternization, and tampering with time records. Additionally, Hart demoted Escalante by stripping him of his position as supervisor.

Hart met with Fluckes again on March 7, 2006 to present Fluckes with the information collected during the investigation and to provide Fluckes with an opportunity to explain his actions. Fluckes continued to deny any wrongdoing, despite witness, time record, and other evidence to the contrary. Fluckes asserts that it was at this point that he complained to Hart that the investigation was unfair because it was discriminatory. Yet Hart reflects that he was unaware of Fluckes expressing any such complaint and Fluckes does not claim to have complained to anyone else regarding the alleged discrimination.

Hart then closed his investigation, concluding that Fluckes violated the following Johnny Rockets' policies: Fluckes falsified time records by working under his wife's name; Fluckes violated the company's non-fraternization policy by employing his wife as a direct subordinate; Fluckes violated Johnny Rockets' overtime policy by allowing Escalante to work under Escalante's wife's name; and Fluckes violated the sexual harassment policy by touching Gonzalzles' posterior. Accordingly, Hart recommended to his superiors that Fluckes be terminated. Two Johnny Rockets vice presidents and a human resources manager granted Hart the authority to terminate Fluckes, which Hart did on March 9, 2006. In terminating Fluckes, Hart explained to him that the reason for the termination was the numerous policy violations that Hart found in his investigation.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment should be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The facts presented are to be construed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Smith v. City of Chicago, 242 F.3d 737, 742 (7th Cir. 2001). Once the moving party has set forth the basis for summary judgment, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party who must go beyond mere allegations and offer specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). The nonmoving party must offer more than "[c]onclusory ...


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