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Helm v. Lahood

August 21, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge


William Helm ("Helm") has brought this action against his current employer, the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA"), charging it with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII," 42 U.S.C. §§2000e to 2000e-17) by (1) employment discrimination on the basis of race and national origin and (2) racial harassment creating a hostile work environment. Secretary of the Department of Transportation Ray LaHood*fn1 has moved for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. ("Rule") 56, and the motion has been fully briefed. For the reasons stated here, the Rule 56 motion is granted.

Standard of Review

Every Rule 56 movant bears the burden of establishing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact (Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). For that purpose courts consider evidentiary records in the light most favorable to nonmovants and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor (Lesch v. Crown Cork & Seal Co., 282 F.3d 467, 471 (7th Cir. 2002)). But to avoid summary judgment a non-movant "must produce more than a scintilla of evidence to support his position" that a genuine issue of fact exists (Pugh v. City of Attica, 259 F.3d 619, 625 (7th Cir. 2001)) and "must set forth specific facts that demonstrate a genuine issue of triable fact" (id.). Ultimately summary judgment is warranted only if a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-movant (Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

What follows is a summary of the facts viewed on the terms stated in the preceding paragraph. That pro-Helm perspective--or at least its scope--may of course be impacted to the extent that Helm has or has not complied with the strictures of this District Court's LR 56.1.*fn2


In December 2005 John Pipes, the Chief Operating Officer of FAA's Air Traffic Organization ("Organization"), announced a plan to restructure the Organization's nine service centers in an effort to reduce operating costs (S. Ex. A. at 337-38). Those service centers were consolidated into three service centers in Seattle, Washington, Fort Worth, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia, and 300 positions were reassigned (S. St. ¶¶5-6).*fn3 Any reassigned employee who did not wish to relocate could look for an alternative placement in the Chicago area or, absent such a placement, would face involuntary separation or, in some cases, early retirement (H. Ex. G). To take advantage of the first option, an employee could bid on open positions or submit an Employee Reassignment Request ("Request") to the supervisor of the FAA unit with which the employee wished to obtain an employment position (S. St. ¶¶8, 10).

In 2005 Helm, who is of Native American descent, worked at the Organization's Airways Facilities Division for the Great Lakes Region in Des Plaines, Illinois (S. St. ¶2). Helm was an Operations Program Specialist in the Organization's Planning and Requirements group*fn4 (id.). Maureen Clark ("Clark") was his first-line supervisor, and Claude Nunez ("Nunez") was his second-line supervisor (id.).

In August 2006 Director of Technical Operations Jo Tarrh notified Helm that effective December 31, 2006 he was being reassigned to the Planning and Requirements group at the Texas service center, which was supervised by Anthony Roetzel ("Roetzel")(H. Ex. G at 1; S. Ex. A at 395). Helm accepted the reassignment but noted that the relocation would be burdensome because his father and four children lived in the Chicago area and needed Helm's support (S. Ex. A at 135).

Of Helm's 12 co-workers in the program management branch, five others faced reassignment as well, and each took steps to avoid it (D. Ex. A at 12-13). Three found alternative positions in the Chicago area. Caucasian male*fn5 program specialist Dennis Baley was reassigned to the Texas service center but successfully applied, by Request, for a National Airspace Systems Specialist position (S. St. ¶29). African-American male Non-Federal Program Manager Melvin Banks was reassigned in March 2006 and successfully submitted a Request to the O'Hare Modernization Program ("Program") headed by Barry Cooper ("Cooper")(S. St. ¶12). And Caucasian female senior engineer Jenny Ross ("Ross") successfully applied for a position in the Navaids/Infrastructure Construction/Installation Center in Chicago (S. Ex. A at 471).

But the other two employees facing reassignment were not as fortunate. Caucasian male safety and occupational health manager Bill Ibbottson ("Ibbottson") and Caucasian male environmental safety manager Wayne Vogelsburg were reassigned to the Texas center and, after unsuccessful attempts to secure Chicago area positions, ultimately relocated there (S. St. ¶¶30-32).

There were seven remaining employees in the program management group who were not affected by the Organization's restructuring plan. Two of the employees were temporarily detailed to that group and, later during the restructuring, returned to their original positions: African-American female Lynette Dupree returned to her position in the Telecommunications Group (S. Ex. A at 31), and Caucasian female Vicki Richard returned to her position in the Operations branch (S. Ex. A. at 466). Four others--Pakistani male Saleem Lakhani ("Lakhani"), Hispanic female Magdalene Ochoa ("Ochoa"), Caucasian female Regina Sabatini and Caucasian female Cheri Walter were all electronics technicians whose positions had not been reassigned (S. Ex. A at 12-13). And the seventh, Caucasian female Operations Program Manager Michele Sabatini ("Sabatini"), had her job duties transferred to the Midstates Operation Control Center in Kansas but was not required to relocate from Chicago (S. Ex. A at 365, 491).

As for Helm, he deployed three different strategies to avoid reassignment. First, he sent Requests and unsolicited e-mails to various supervisors of FAA units, none of whom extended an offer of employment (H. Ex. E). Second, he began to perform a support function in the Program for several months in 2006 while still performing his duties as an Operations Program Specialist, in the hope that a permanent position within the Program would become available (S. Ex. A at 383-84).*fn6 But ultimately there were no permanent positions available in the Program for which Helms could have been selected (id. at 384).

Third, Helm approached two employees who had not been reassigned--first Lakhani and later Ochoa--about swapping positions with Helm, so that they would go to Texas in Helm's place. Employees within the same pay grades and position levels were eligible for such swaps, subject to approval by both their management and the Human Resources department ("HR")(S. Ex. A at 399). Because Lakhani and Helm were at the same "I" pay grade, ...

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