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Patterson v. Indiana Newspapers

December 8, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 05 CV 881-Larry J. McKinney, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sykes, Circuit Judge.


Before CUDAHY, FLAUM, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

Lisa Coffey and James Patterson are former editorial writers at The Indianapolis Star who left the newspaper in 2003 and 2005, respectively. They departed under very different circumstances, but both claim they were victims of employment discrimination on the basis of their religion-more specifically, discrimination because they are Christians who believe that homo-sexual conduct is sinful. Patterson also claims the Star discriminated against him because of his race (African-American) and age (he was 51 when he was fired), and retaliated against him for filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Finally, both plaintiffs assert a state-law claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The district court entered summary judgment for the Star on all claims, and Coffey and Patterson appealed. We affirm.

I. Background

We begin with two of the district court's procedural rulings, both of which affect the proper scope of this appeal. The district judge determined that Coffey and Patterson had failed to comply with Local Rule 56.1(b), which requires a party opposing a motion for summary judgment to identify the material facts in dispute and cite to admissible evidence controverting the moving party's evidence. The judge also noted that much of their factual submission was argumentative. Because of this noncompliance with the local rules, the judge enforced Local Rule 56.1(e) and for the most part accepted the Star's factual assertions as undisputed. We have repeatedly held that the district court is within its discretion to strictly enforce compliance with its local rules regarding summary-judgment motions, Fed. Trade Comm'n v. Bay Area Bus. Council, Inc.,423 F.3d 627, 633 (7th Cir. 2005), so we likewise accept the Star's version of the facts. The district court also disregarded affidavits submitted by Coffey and Patterson because they "directly contradict[ed]" their deposition testimony. This, too, was appropriate. See Beckel v. Wal-Mart Assocs., Inc.,301 F.3d 621, 623-24 (7th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, we take the following facts from the Star's summary-judgment submission.

A. TheIndianapolis Star

The Indianapolis Star is Indiana's largest newspaper and was acquired in 2000 by media giant Gannett. Barbara Henry serves as the Star's president and publisher, which puts her in charge of directing the newspaper's overall operation. In 2003 the Star named Dennis Ryerson as editor and vice president. In that capacity he is responsible for newsroom staffing and the content of news articles and editorials. Andrea Neal served as the Star's editorial-page editor until the summer of 2003, when she left the newspaper to become a teacher; she was replaced by Tim Swarens. The editorial-page editor reports to the editor and directs the content of the newspaper's editorials and the columns on its opinion pages. Generally speaking, opinion columns represent the viewpoint of the author; editorials are unsigned and represent the editorial position of the newspaper.

B. Lisa Coffey's Tenure at the Star

Coffey joined the Star in 1999. In the beginning she spent three days a week working as a copy editor and two days a week performing administrative duties for a journalism-intern program. Although she "enjoyed working on the metro desk," she made no secret that she wanted to move to the editorial department. Her efforts paid off in 2002 when the Star exchanged her copy-editor responsibilities for an editorial-writer position. As an editorial writer, Coffey reported to the editorial-page editor and was responsible for writing editorials and columns for the Star's opinion page. She still spent two days a week administering the Star's intern program, however.

Coffey describes herself as a "traditional Christian" who believes homosexual conduct is sinful. In July 2003, in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), Coffey wrote an opinion column describing the HIV risks associated with sodomy. Neal approved the article, but Ryerson decided it was unsuitable for publication because it provided a too-graphic description of anal intercourse. He told Neal, however, that he was open to publishing a less-graphic column on the risks of unprotected sex.

The day after Ryerson rejected Coffey's column, a member of the Christian Student Foundation emailed Ryerson expressing his opinion against same-sex marriage. Ryerson sent a responsive email asking if the Star could consider the student's letter for publication; Ryerson copied Coffey on this reply. The electronic correspondence between Ryerson and the student-by all accounts unrelated to Ryerson's refusal to publish Coffey's column-triggered an email exchange between Coffey and Ryerson about the relationship between objective truth and opinion. Coffey emailed Ryerson stating that she knew both were "seeking truth" even though they held "certain beliefs that are 180 degrees apart." She apologized for being angry with Ryerson (presumably over the rejected column) and invited him to lunch. Ryerson wrote back thanking Coffey, offering to discuss the issue over lunch, and explaining that he did not necessarily believe there is "one truth" and that editorials express "opinion" and not "truth." About an hour later, Coffey replied with a lengthy email describing her religious views. She explained that she had been "knocked out by the Holy Spirit" and said that if Ryerson's perspective was correct, he should "call the nut farm now to haul [her] away." Ryerson perceived Coffey's email as an attempt at workplace proselytization in violation of company policy. Concerned that Coffey might have sent similar emails to other employees of the newspaper, Ryerson wrote back telling Coffey that it was inappropriate to proselytize at work.

Before and after these events, management at the Star became aware that Coffey had developed a habit of violating the newspaper's overtime policy. The Star required employees to seek preapproval before working any overtime, but Coffey would regularly submit requests for payment for overtime work that had not been preapproved. The issue came to a head in August 2003 when Coffey asked to meet with Ali Zoibi, the Star's vice president of human resources. Coffey requested the meeting to discuss the overtime issue and her pension. Regarding the latter, Coffey claimed that her Star pension account did not reflect extra compensation she had been paid by the sponsor of the internship program Coffey helped manage. The Star ended up paying Coffey's pension account an additional $5,500 to reflect the outside compensation. Zoibi took the opportunity, how-ever, to remind Coffey about the importance of following the company's overtime policy.

Coffey disregarded this warning and continued to work overtime without seeking prior approval. Her supervisors considered the extra work to be both excessive and unnecessary. For example, she submitted a request for 50 hours of unapproved overtime work she had performed preparing binders on candidates for election. Coffey had produced far more information than Swarens thought was necessary, and he never would have authorized the request had it been submitted for preapproval because it came close to consuming the entire annual overtime budget for the editorial department. Zoibi and Henry met and agreed that Coffey needed to be supervised more closely to ensure she did not work unauthorized overtime.

In the meantime, in September 2003 Ryerson decided to adjust Coffey's role at the Star. Because the aspiring journalists in the newspaper's internship program had more regular contact with newsroom reporting staff than with editorial writers, Ryerson believed the administrative oversight for the program should be shifted from the editorial department to the newsroom. This reorganization left Coffey with only three days of work per week as an editorial writer. Ryerson offered Coffey a full-time job back on the copy desk. In addition to providing her with a full-time position, the copy-desk job would permit the newspaper to more closely supervise Coffey's work to ensure she did not violate the company's overtime policy. Coffey preferred editorial writing and asked if she could divide her week by working ...

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