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Luster v. Illinois Dep't of Corrections

December 4, 2009

MILTON LUSTER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge

ORDER

This matter is now before the court on Defendant, Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC's), Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Summary Judgment [#39] is GRANTED.

JURISDICTION

The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as the claims asserted in the Complaint present federal questions under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII").

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Milton Luster ("Luster") is an African-American male. On August 8, 1988, Defendant, the Illinois Department of Corrections ("IDOC"), hired Luster as a Correctional Officer at the Joliet Correctional Center. Between 1999 and 2001, Luster was promoted multiple times and transferred to multiple locations, from Correctional Officer to Correctional Sergeant at Robinson Correctional Center, to Correctional Lieutenant at Decatur Correctional Center, and finally to Correctional Captain at Dwight Correctional Center ("DCC"). In 2003, the position of Correctional Captain was eliminated, and Luster was returned to the position of Correctional Lieutenant. At the time relevant to this action, Luster held the position of Correctional Lieutenant at DCC; Mary Sigler ("Sigler") was Warden at DCC; and Pamela Harris ("Harris") was Assistant Warden at DCC.

On June 6, 2006, Luster wrote an incident report alleging that Christina Cole ("Cole"), a white female Correctional Officer, was insubordinate and called him a "bitch" during a conversation earlier that day. On June 9, 2006, Cole wrote an incident report in which she alleged Luster repeatedly harassed her between May 25, 2006 and June 6, 2006. Cole specifically alleged that that on approximately June 1, 2006, Luster pinned her in the unit C-15 control panel at Dwight Correctional Center and put "hickeys" on her neck. Ex. 4, Def. Mem. Supp. Summ. J. Cole stated that Correctional Officers Heather Jordan ("Jordan"), a white female, and Kenneth Donnals ("Donnals"), a white male, witnessed part of this incident. Luster was placed on paid administrative leave on June 11, 2006.

Larry Sims ("Sims"), an investigator with the IDOC investigations unit, was assigned to probe Cole's allegations against Luster. After Sims concluded his investigation and found that the charges against Luster were substantiated, a hearing was held on August 7, 2006 before Employee Review Officer Janice Emm ("Emm"). On August 17, 2006, after considering the information and documentation presented at the hearing, Emm issued a recommendation that IDOC terminate Luster's employment. This recommendation was supported by Warden Sigler, and Luster was suspended pending discharge effective August 31, 2006. Ex. 12, Def. Mem. Supp. Summ. J. However, Luster testified that the letter he received from the IDOC stated that his punishment was a "30-day termination." Luster Dep. 110: 20-23. On September 6, 2006, Luster tendered his resignation to Sigler.

Luster commenced this action on February 8, 2008, subsequently amending the initial Complaint to allege racial discrimination in violation of Title VII (Count I), racial and sex discrimination in violation of § 1983 (Count II), violation of his First Amendment right to free speech (Count III), violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection (Count IV) and due process (Count V), and retaliation on the basis of race in violation of Title VII (Count VI). This Court dismissed Counts II -- VI in an order entered December 11, 2008. Defendant submitted its Motion for Summary Judgment on the only remaining Count, racial discrimination in violation of Title VII, on October 1, 2009. This matter is now fully briefed, and this Order follows.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment should be granted where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party must demonstrate, through portions of the record or affidavits, the absence of a triable issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Any doubt as to the existence of a genuine issue for trial is resolved against the moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Cain v. Lane, 857 F.2d 1139, 1142 (7th Cir. 1988).

If the moving party meets its burden, the non-moving party then has the burden of presenting specific facts to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and produce evidence of a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. Nevertheless, this Court must "view the record and all references drawn from it in the light most favorable to the [non-moving party]." Holland v. Jefferson Nat. Life Ins. Co., 883 F.2d 1307, 1312 (7th Cir. 1989). The Court will deny summary judgment if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Hedberg v. Indiana Bell Tel. Co., 47 F.3d 928, 931 (7th Cir. 1995).

DISCUSSION

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating "against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1); Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 63 (1986). Under Title VII, a plaintiff is required to establish that he has been the victim of intentional discrimination. Rhodes v. Ill. Dept. of Transp., 359 F.3d 498, 504 (7th Cir. 2004). The plaintiff may prove intentional discrimination using the "direct method" or the "indirect method". Id.

When pursuing a claim using the direct method, the plaintiff may present either direct or circumstantial evidence. Jordan v. City of Gary, Ind., 396 F.3d 825, 832 (7th Cir. 2005). Direct evidence "essentially requires an admission by the decision-maker that his actions were based on the prohibited animus." Radue v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 219 F.3d 612, 616 (7th Cir. 2000). However, such admissions are rarely made or encountered in today's workplace environment. See Jordan 396 F.3d at 832. As a result, plaintiffs are also allowed to use circumstantial evidence to present a "convincing mosaic" that "allows a jury to infer intentional discrimination by the decision maker." Rhodes, 359 F.3d at 504 (quoting Troupe v. May Dept. Stores Co., 20 F.3d 734, 737 (7th Cir. 1994)). Luster makes no attempt to show discrimination via the direct method, thus, the Court must evaluate his claim under the indirect, burden-shifting, method of proof. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973); Caskey v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 535 F.3d 585, 591-592 (7th Cir. 2008).

Under the McDonnell Douglasindirect method, the plaintiff carries the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination by showing: 1) he was a member of a protected class; 2) he was meeting his employer's legitimate performance expectations; 3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and 4) other similarly situated employees who were not members of the protected class were treated more favorably. Winsley v. Cook County 563 F.3d 598, 604 (7th Cir. 2009); Caskey, 535 F.3d at 592. If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Fane v. Locke Reyolds LLP., 480 F.3d 534, 538 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000)). If the defendant succeeds, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant's reasons are pretextual. Perez v. Illinois, 488 F.3d 773, 776 (7th Cir. 2007).

I. Prima Facie Case

Of the four elements necessary to prove a prima facie case of discrimination, only the fourth prong, whether similarly situated employees received more favorable treatment, is truly in dispute. The parties do not dispute that Luster, an African-American male, is a member of a protected class. Additionally, the record clearly shows that Luster suffered an adverse employment action, as he was suspended pending discharge effective August 31, 2006. Ex. 12, Def. Mem. Supp. Summ. J. Finally, in discriminatory discipline cases, the second prong, whether the plaintiff met the employer's legitimate expectations, merges with the fourth prong. Caskey, 535 F.3d at 592.

In considering whether similarly situated employees received more favorable treatment, the Court is mindful that this requirement "should not be applied mechanically or inflexibly". Humphries v. CBOCS West, Inc., 474 F.3d 387, 404 (7th Cir. 2007). To prove this element, a plaintiff must establish that the other employees were "similarly situated with respect to performance, qualifications, and conduct." Keri v. Board of Trustees of Purdue University, 458 F.3d 620, 644 (7th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). The similarly situated analysis "normally entails a showing that the two employees dealt with the same supervisor, were subject to the same standards, and had engaged in similar conduct without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances as would distinguish their conduct or the employer's treatment of them." Humphries, 474 F.3d at 404-5 (quoting Radue 219 F.3d at 617-18); see also South v. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, 495 F.3d 747, 752 (7th Cir. 2007); Keri, 458 F.3d at 644. This inquiry "simply asks whether there are sufficient commonalities on the key variables between the plaintiff and the would-be comparator to allow. a jury to reach an inference of discrimination." Humphries, 474 F.3d at 405. The plaintiff "need not prove anything at this stage." Id (emphasis in original).

Luster believes numerous IDOC employees were similarly situated, yet received more favorable treatment. Correctional Officer Donald Kinsella ("Kinsella"), a white male, was alleged to have "socialized with an inmate." Sigler-Quigley Aff. ¶ 7. Warden Sigler recommended a seven-day suspension for Kinsella because she determined that the charge against him was not proven. Id at ¶ 9. Correctional Officer Kenneth Kozlowski, a white male, allegedly touched the breast of a female correctional officer. Id at ¶ 14. Warden Sigler recommended that Kozlowski be discharged from employment. Id at ¶ 15. Correctional Officer Heather Jordan, a white female, allegedly engaged in unprofessional conduct toward a superior officer. Id at ¶ 19. Warden Sigler recommended that Jordan receive a seven-day suspension. Id at ¶ 20. Correctional Officer Michael Strowmatt, a white male, faced allegations of engaging in five counts of custodial sexual misconduct. Id at ¶ 12. He was arrested by the Livingston County Sheriff's Dept. and resigned prior to having an Employee Review Hearing. Id at ¶ 13. Lieutenant Bill Hurley, a white male, faced allegations of unprofessional conduct following allegations that he struck an officer with a telephone. Hurley Aff. at ¶ 7. Hurley received a three-day suspension under Warden Lynn Cahill-Mashing. Id at ¶ ¶ 10, 12. Finally, Lieutenant Donald Johnson allegedly touched a correctional officer in an inappropriate manner. Johnson Aff. ¶ 4. He was placed on suspension pending judicial verdict by then-Warden Alyssa B. Williams. Id at ¶ 5.

Understanding the role of the Warden is key to an accurate analysis of whether IDOC employees were similarly situated. The responsibilities of a Warden include reviewing disciplinary actions and recommending "a level of discipline" for each employee. Sigler-Quigley Aff. ¶ 3. Following the Employee Review Hearing, the Warden has discretionary power to either agree or disagree with the decision of the Hearing Officer and increase or decrease the discipline levied. Harris Decl. ¶ 23.*fn1 In August 2006, Warden Sigler recommended that Luster be discharged from employment with the IDOC because she found the allegations against him were substantiated. Although they had different ranks and supervisors, Correctional Officers Kinsella, Kozlowski, Jordan, and Strowmatt were all ultimately subject to Warden Sigler's disciplinary recommendations for their actions. This commonality is sufficient to support a comparison between the disciplinary actions levied against Luster and those recommended and implemented for the Correctional Officers listed. Conversely, Lieutenants ...


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