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Watson v. Potter

February 19, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rebecca R. Pallmeyer United States District Judge

Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer


Plaintiff Cecil Watson worked for the United States Postal Service ("USPS") for twenty-two years, ultimately becoming manager of the branch in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. In 2005, a series of incidents at the Hoffman Estates facility culminated in Plaintiff's being stripped of his managerial duties and subsequently terminated. Plaintiff catalogues these incidents in his complaint and alleges that they were motivated by racial discrimination and a desire to retaliate against him for a previous complaint he filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Both Plaintiff and Defendant have moved for summary judgment and, for the reasons that follow, Defendant's motion is granted.


Plaintiff, an African-American male, began working for USPS in 1984. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 3.) In 1990, Plaintiff applied for and was denied a management position within USPS. Watson v. Potter, No. 96 C 7044, 2002 WL 31006129, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 5, 2002). Plaintiff claimed that he was denied the promotion because of his race, and an administrative judge with the EEOC agreed and recommended that Plaintiff be offered a management position. Id. Plaintiff never received that promotion, however, and after lengthy litigation, in September 2002, Judge Coar of this court ordered that Plaintiff be promoted to an Executive and Administrative Salary ("EAS") Level 21 position and be awarded back pay. Id. at *11. The following month, Plaintiff became the manager of the Hoffman Estates branch of the Schaumburg Post Office. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 3.) The Schaumburg Post Office runs two branch offices: Hoffman Estates and Roselle. (Id. ¶ 1.) As manager of a branch office, Plaintiff reported directly to the Postmaster of the Schaumburg Post Office, Kenneth Michalowski, who in turn reported to Arthur Bacon, the Manager of Post Office Operations. (Id. ¶ 2.)

Watson claims that he and Michalowski had a fine working relationship until December 2004. (Id. ¶ 9.) That month, a new supervisor, Jody Marino, began working under Watson's direction. (Id. ¶ 10.) When she reported to work two hours early on her first day following a week of training, Watson told her she would not be paid for that time because she had not obtained prior approval from him. (Id.) Marino complained to Michalowski about Watson's decision, and Michalowski instructed Watson to pay Marino for the two hours unless he had some reason to know that she did not actually work those hours. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) Watson disagreed with Michalowski's decision because he believed the relevant issue was that she had not obtained prior approval. Watson therefore continued to refuse to input Marino's two hours; Michalowski ultimately directed another manager to input Marino's hours and issued Watson a letter of warning for insubordination. (Id. ¶ 14.) Watson appealed the letter to Bacon and to Terry Green, the Area Manager of Human Resources, but both found the penalty appropriate. (Id.)

In January 2005, Michalowski, pursuant to a directive from Bacon, informed Watson and the other managers that they were required to stay at their offices until the last letter carrier returned to the facility. (Id. ¶ 15.) On January 26, Watson reported to work at 7:30 a.m. and left at 4:30 p.m., before the last letter carrier returned, due to a personal matter. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 14.) Shortly after Watson left for the day, Michalowski called the Hoffman Estates branch and learned that Watson had left before all of the letter carriers had returned. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 16.) Watson had not called Michalowski to inform him that Watson needed to leave early, and Michalowski issued another letter of warning to Watson for failing to follow instructions. (Id. ¶¶ 16-17.) The letter was issued in lieu of a seven-day suspension, and was again upheld as an appropriate response by both Bacon and Green. (Id. ¶ 17.)

In April 2005, Michalowski sent an e-mail to the managers instructing them to take over responsibility for maintaining the overtime and annual leave lists for staff under their supervision. He specifically stated, "If you have your supervisors doing this currently, stop." (Id. ¶ 18.) On August 26, 2005, Michalowski sent a follow-up e-mail to the managers to ensure that they were complying with his directive. (Id. ¶ 19.) Watson replied that he had taken over maintenance of the annual leave list but not the overtime list because he was too busy; Watson urged Michalowski to "consider allowing [a supervisor] at H.E. handle [the overtime list] until things settle down." (Id.) Michalowski issued yet another letter of warning to Watson for failure to follow his instructions. (Id. ¶ 20.) This letter was in lieu of a fourteen-day suspension, and was again approved by Bacon and affirmed by Green. (Id.)

Watson submitted an annual report of his own performance in October 2005. (Id. ¶ 21.) Based on numeric goals contained in the report, Watson rated his accomplishments in the "non-contributor" range, the lowest of four rankings, in three of the four "Core" requirements listed on the evaluation. (Id. ¶ 21.) Michalowski agreed with Watson's evaluation. (Id.) Plaintiff believes that his peer managers were allowed to set their own Core goals for the evaluation form, while his goals were evaluated by Michalowski, but he cites no evidence that his evaluation was administered differently from those of the other managers. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 21.) In an apparent effort to establish that his performance was satisfactory, Watson points out that in December 2004, Michalowski had issued Watson a $1000 cash award for maintaining "a trend of continued positive performance." (Id.; Ex. 26 to Pl.'s 56.1.)

At about 3 a.m. on November 30, 2005, one of Watson's employees called him at home and informed him that a suspicious powder had been found at the bottom of an incoming mail container. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 44.) Watson asked her if it appeared to be detergent, but the employee was unsure.

(Id. ¶ 45.) Since 2001, when a number of USPS facilities around the country were exposed to anthrax and several postal workers died, USPS had devoted resources to training its employees regarding the proper ways to handle suspicious substances. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 22.) Plaintiff has admitted that he was familiar with many of the documents that USPS had published regarding the proper procedure for handling hazardous materials; in fact, Plaintiff has given safety talks to his employees on the subject, and a poster hanging on the wall in the hallway that led to his office contained instructions on how to respond to "suspicious mail and unknown powder or substances," instructing employees: "Don't handle, isolate the substance." (Id.; EEOC Tr. 235-237, Ex. C to Def.'s 56.1.) Watson nevertheless directed the employee who had called him to have another mailhandler put on gloves, place a small amount of the powder in a cup, and run water on it to determine if it was detergent. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 45.) The substance did not foam, and the Hoffman Estates Fire and Police Departments, who were summoned to the scene, determined the substance was not toxic.*fn1 (Id. ¶ 47.) Later that day or the next day, Plaintiff described this incident to Michalowski, who advised Plaintiff that the instructions he gave violated USPS procedure. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 24.) After confirming the details with employees at the Hoffman Estates branch, Michalowski told Plaintiff that, until further notice, he was no longer to direct the Hoffman Estates employees and that he was to report directly to Michalowski at the Schaumburg facility. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 25.)

As the record reflects, Watson never again worked regularly for the Postal Service. Over the next two weeks, he showed up only sporadically, complaining of work-related stress and a respiratory infection. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 26.) On December 6, when Watson reported to work for only two hours, Michalowski directed Watson to provide medical documentation by Friday, December 9, warning that he would otherwise be considered absent without leave ("AWOL") and not receive pay. (Id.) At 7:30 a.m. on December 9, Watson was marked AWOL. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 59.) Later that day, around 3 p.m., Plaintiff did fax the documentation to Michalowski, but for some reason, Michalowski did not see it immediately. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 27.) Michalowski noticed the error on December 12 and ordered that a salary adjustment form be prepared for Watson. (Id.) Watson received the corrected pay on December 16, his scheduled pay date. (Id.)

Also around this time, Watson submitted his leave requests for the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2006. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 62.) Christine Stine, manager of the Roselle branch, was in charge of creating and maintaining the leave schedule for managers in the Schaumburg facility and its branches. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 4, 28.) Employee leave requests were honored in order of seniority. (Id. ¶ 29.) Watson was listed third on the seniority list, calculated based on the amount of time the individual had held his/her office, and Plaintiff's leave request was denied because the two managers listed above him on the seniority list-Stine and John Perry-had also requested those two weeks. (Id. ¶ 29; Ex. W to Def.'s 56.1; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 62.) Watson disputes the manner in which seniority was calculated, and maintains that he was in fact the most senior manager because Judge Coar's order from September 2002 stated that he would have "retroactive seniority." Watson, 2002 WL 31006129, at *6.

In any event, after Plaintiff's short workday on December 6, he did not return to work for more than three weeks. On December 27, he appeared but worked just half an hour before leaving. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 31.) Plaintiff was away for more than one month before he next reported to work on either February 7 or 8, 2006, when he again worked only half an hour before leaving. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 32.) One month later, on March 8, 2006, Plaintiff reported to work for the last time, again for half an hour. During that half hour, Michalowski asked Plaintiff whether he was representing a craft employee, Darrell Coburn, in an EEOC proceeding. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 33.) Previously, in August 2005, Michalowski had given Watson and the other managers a copy of a memorandum from the Senior Assistant Postmaster General that stated: "It is inappropriate for a postal manager or supervisor to represent a bargaining unit employee in any administrative proceeding." (Id. ¶ 8.) Watson had in fact been representing Coburn prior to August, but denies that he continued to serve as Coburn's representative after receipt of the memorandum. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 35.) He does admit that he served a summons in November 2005 on Coburn's behalf, but maintains that this does not rise to the level of representation. (Id.) USPS claims that five other documents from Coburn's investigative file ...

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