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Montgomery v. Potter

October 13, 2009

CHERLI A. MONTGOMERY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elaine E. Bucklo United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Cherli Montgomery ("Montgomery"), a United States Postal Service ("USPS") employee, was terminated in 2006 and is suing USPS for alleged race discrimination, sex discrimination, and retaliation. USPS moves for summary judgment on all claims, arguing that Montgomery 1) cannot prove a prima facie case of race discrimination or retaliation, 2) cannot show the stated reason for terminating her employment was pretext, and 3) failed to exhaust administrative remedies with respect to her sex discrimination claim. For the following reasons, USPS's motion is granted.

I.

Montgomery, a black female, worked as a registry clerk for USPS in Aurora, Illinois. Her office distributes all incoming and outgoing mail for forty-four postal stations ("associate offices") within the 605__ zip code. Montgomery and Lori Sall ("Sall"), a white female, processed registered mail on tour 1 - the shift from 11:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. Roger Gordon, a white male, and Renee Domouges, Arteria Lovett, Diane McKay, Barbara Broach, and Kim Hunt, all black females, worked as backup registry clerks on tour 1 when Montgomery or Sall were unavailable. The registry clerks were supervised by Quintin Mayberry, a black male, who reported to Samuel Fuller, the tour 1 manager of distribution operations, also a black male, who in turn reported to the plant manager, Gail Banks, a black female.

Processing registered mail entails 1) separating all incoming registered mail by destination postal station; 2) documenting the mail on a dispatch sheet; 3) placing the mail with its related dispatch sheet in a white canvas bag; 4) locking the bag; and 5) delivering the bag to the dock for further transport and delivery. Two types of locks are available to secure white canvas registered mail bags -- rotary locks and tin seals. Rotary locks are reusable and can only be opened with a key. Tin seals are thin metal disposable bands that must be cut before the bags can be opened.

In January of 2006, USPS management directed the registry clerks to use rotary locks in lieu of tin seals for securing registered mail bags. Six of the forty-four associate offices can not open rotary locks, so tin seals were exclusively authorized for dispatches to those six offices. USPS records show that Sall and the backup registry clerks all abided by the directive, while Montgomery continued to use tin seals on all dispatches to all associate offices, even after she was repeatedly reminded that rotary locks were to be used instead. Montgomery received varying types of progressive discipline for insubordination and her failure to abide by management's directive, including a warning letter, seven- and fourteen-day suspensions, and her eventual termination.

II.

Summary judgment is proper when the pleadings and discovery, together with 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); see also Faas v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 532 F.3d 633, 640 (7th Cir. 2008). The movant initially bears the burden of "identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

Once the movant has met this burden, the non-movant "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading," but rather "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e). I 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. Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 490 (7th Cir. 2007).*fn1

III.

Under Title VII, a plaintiff can prove discrimination or retaliation either by presenting direct evidence of such discrimination or retaliation, or by the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting approach (the "indirect method"). See Winsley v. Cook County, 563 F.3d 598, 604 (7th Cir. 2009). The parties in this case focus their arguments on the indirect method.

With respect to Montgomery's race discrimination claim, she can successfully establish her prima facie case through the indirect method if she shows that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she met legitimate job expectations; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) other similarly situated, non-protected persons were treated more favorably. Caskey v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 535 F.3d 585, 591-92 (7th Cir. 2008). The presumption of discrimination created by establishing a prima facie case shifts the burden to USPS to produce a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment decision. Jackson v. City of Chicago, 552 F.3d 619, 622 (7th Cir. 2009). If USPS rebuts the prima facie case, the burden then shifts back to Montgomery to show that the reasons proffered by the defendant are mere pretext. Id.

Montgomery's termination letter states that she was dismissed for "failure to follow instructions" regarding registry procedures. The letter cites two categories of instructions that were not properly followed - incorrect use of forms and repeated failure to follow the rotary lock directive in the face of progressive discipline. USPS agrees that there are material facts in dispute as to the first reason for termination regarding proper use of forms, but argues that Montgomery's repeated failure to follow the rotary lock directive serves as an independent basis for her termination. Montgomery does not disagree, therefore, I focus my analysis on this second reason for termination.

In support of its motion, USPS argues that Montgomery's insubordination and failure to abide by management's rotary lock directive despite numerous warnings and disciplinary action shows she failed to meet her employer's legitimate job expectations. In addition, because all the other tour 1 registry clerks obeyed the rotary lock directive and none were ...


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