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Shakir v. Board of Trustees of Rend Lake College

February 8, 2010

SALAH SHAKIR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF REND LAKE COLLEGE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

I. Introduction

Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment and supporting memorandum (Docs. 71 & 72), filed by defendants Board of Trustees of Rend Lake College, County of Jefferson, State of Illinois (the "College"), Bill Simpson, Randall Crocker and Bryan Drew. Also before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment and supporting memorandum (Docs. 74 & 75), filed separately by defendant John Huffman. Plaintiff has filed opposing Responses to each summary judgment motion (Docs. 80 & 81, respectively), to which Defendants have filed their Replies (Docs. 88 & 89).

Plaintiff has filed an employment discrimination suit, specifically alleging discrimination based on his race, religion and/or national origin. Stemming from this alleged discrimination, Plaintiff also seeks relief for retaliation, violations of his equal protection and due process rights, tortious interference with a prospective economic advantage and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff claims that in response to an anonymous letter, the College launched an investigation, unfairly making Plaintiff the target due to discriminatory attitudes against his Muslim religion and Iraqi nationality. Plaintiff believes that Defendants' reasons for conducting the investigation, freezing his salary and removing him as the Vice President of Student Services at the College were pretextual. He claims that aside from the severe emotional distress he has suffered due to Defendants' actions, they have also significantly impaired his chances for future career advancement with either the College or other employers.

Defendants seek summary judgment on Plaintiff's suit in its entirety.*fn1 The Court has reviewed the Parties' briefings and relevant exhibits established on the record so that it may present its fully informed opinion herein regarding the merits of whether Defendants are entitled to summary judgment.

II. Background

Previously, the Court recognized a Stipulation of Dismissal (Doc. 67), whereby Plaintiff dismissed with prejudice Counts 2, 4 and 6 of his Amended Complaint against defendant Huffman only (Doc. 91). The Court also denied a Motion to Dismiss/Motion to Strike (Doc. 46), filed by the College, Simpson, Crocker and Drew, with the exception of Count 6, which Plaintiff, in his Response (Doc. 53), agreed should be dismissed with prejudice. Thus, the remainder of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (Doc. 37) still pending is as follows:

Count 1 - a claim under Title VII for racial, religious and national origin discrimination and retaliation against the College;

Count 2 - a racial discrimination claim against the College, Simpson, Crocker and Drew, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981;

Count 3 - a claim for violations of equal protection an due process rights against the College pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983;

Count 4 - a claim for tortious interference with a prospective contractual relationship against Simpson, Crocker and Drew; and

Count 5 - a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against the College, Simpson, Crocker, Drew and Huffman.

III. Statement of Uncontested Facts*fn2

Currently, plaintiff Salah Shakir is employed by the College as its Vice President of Information Technology (Doc. 37, ¶¶ 1 & 14). He has seventeen years of college-level administrative and teaching experience and overall, twenty five years of experience in the field of information technology (Id. at ¶ 1). Plaintiff is a Muslim individual of Iraqi national origin (Id.). The College is an employer within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e. At the time at issue in this suit, defendant Bill Simpson ("Simpson") served as the Chairman of the College's Board of Trustees (the "Board") (Id. at ¶ 9). Defendants Randall Crocker ("Crocker") and Bryan Drew ("Drew") were also members of the Board (Id. at ¶¶ 10-11). Also at the time at issue in this suit, defendant John Huffman ("Huffman"), a private attorney, served as legal counsel for the College on a variety of matters (Id. at ¶ 12).

Sometime in August 2007, the Board received an anonymous letter (the "letter"), dated August 20. 2007, which accused Plaintiff of acting unethically and questioned alleged misconduct by Plaintiff, Mark Kern ("Kern"), who was President of the College at the time, and his wife, Pat Kern, who was chief executive officer of the College foundation (Doc. 75, p. 2; Doc. 81, p. 2). Regarding Plaintiff specifically, the letter accused him of: (1) practicing his Muslim religion on school time; (2) speaking in Arabic on the phone and allowing foreign students to gather in front of his office; (3) hiring a non-English speaking computer programmer who required tax payer money to pay for his interpreter and to secure his work visa; and (4) attempting to bend the rules to allow two or more foreign citizens to enroll at the College as full-time students in order to extend their stay in the United States (Id.).

In early September 2007, Simpson, as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, requested that Drew and Huffman conduct an investigation regarding the letter and report their findings back to the Board (Doc. 75, p. 2; Doc. 81, pp. 4-5). The purpose of the investigation was to attempt to identify the letter's author, to uncover the facts regarding alleged circumstances relating to the admission of certain international students to the College, and any other matters that came up during the course of the investigation which Huffman and Drew thought should be reported to the Board (Id.). Proceeding with their investigation, Huffman and Drew began by interviewing approximately 35 College employees (Doc. 75, p. 3; Doc. 81, p. 5). Also during the later part of September 2007, the College received a second anonymous letter, again identifying Plaintiff, Mark Kern and Pat Kern as persons allegedly engaging in misconduct at the College (Doc. 75, p. 3; Doc. 81, p. 3).

Eventually, Plaintiff -- his job performance and behavior -- seemed to become the main focus of the investigation (Doc. 75, pp. 2-5; Doc. 81, pp. 2-9). Huffman met with Plaintiff regarding the investigation on two separate occasions: sometime in late September 2007 and again on October 3, 2007 (Doc. 75, p. 4; Doc. 81, p. 4). The first meeting was to briefly discuss Plaintiff's upcoming formal interview, to occur on October 3rd. Huffman informed Plaintiff about some of the general topics he anticipated he would ask Plaintiff to address during his formal interview. Additionally, Huffman was interested in discussing with Plaintiff who he thought had authored the anonymous letters (Doc. 81, p. 4 - citing Doc. 75, attached Huffman Aff., ¶ 12). Huffman and Drew formally interviewed Plaintiff on October 3, 2007, as part of their investigation. The interview was reported by a court reporter (Doc. 75, p. 4, attached Huffman Aff., ¶ 13, Ex. 4 - transcript of interview).

At the conclusion of the investigation, Huffman met with the Board to report the findings. Ultimately, on October 19, 2007, the Board approved removing Plaintiff from his position as the Vice President of Student Services (he remains the Vice President of Information Technology) (Doc. 75, p. 6; Doc. 37, ¶ 34). At some point in time thereafter, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") (Doc. 37, ¶ 41; Doc. 72, p. 7).

Sometime thereafter, Mark Kern deciding to retire from President of the College and so the College began taking applications and conducting interviews for the College President position. Plaintiff applied; he was interviewed but was not offered the job (Doc. 37, ¶¶ 47, 50; Doc. 72, pp. 7-8).

IV. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is proper where the pleadings and affidavits, if any, "show that 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); Oats v. Discovery Zone, 116 F.3d 1161, 1165 (7th Cir. 1997) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). The movant bears the burden of establishing the absence of fact issues and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Santaella v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 123 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 1997) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323). This Court must consider the entire record, drawing reasonable inferences and resolving factual disputes in favor of the non-movant. Regensburger v. China Adoption Consultants, Ltd., 138 F.3d 1201, 1205 (7th Cir. 1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)); see also Smith v. Hope School, 560 F.3d 694, (7th Cir. 2009) ("[W]e are not required to draw every conceivable inference from the record . . . we draw only reasonable inferences.") (citations omitted). Summary judgment is also appropriate if a plaintiff cannot make a showing of an essential element of his claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. While the Court may not "weigh evidence or engage in fact-finding" it must determine if a genuine issue remains for trial. See Lewis v. City of Chicago, 496 F.3d 645, 651 (7th Cir. 2007).

In response to a motion for summary judgment, the non-movant may not simply rest on the allegations in his pleadings; rather, he must show through specific evidence that an issue of fact remains on matters for which he bears the burden of proof at trial. Walker v. Shansky, 28 F.3d 666, 670-71 (7th Cir. 1994), aff'd, 51 F.3d 276 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). No issue remains for trial "unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not sufficiently probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted); accordStarzenski v. City of Elkhart, 87 F.3d 872, 880 (7th Cir. 1996); Tolle v. Carroll Touch, Inc., 23 F.3d 174, 178 (7th Cir. 1994). In other words, "inferences relying on mere speculation or conjecture will not suffice." Trade Fin. Partners, LLC v. AAR Corp., 573 F.3d 401, 407 (7th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252 ("The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-movant's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]."). Instead, the non-moving party must present "definite, competent evidence to rebut the [summary judgment] motion." EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 233 F.3d 432, 437 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

V. Discussion

A. Racial, Religious and National Origin Discrimination

Plaintiff brings a cause of action in Count 1 against the College for violation of Title VII, alleging that the College discriminated against him because of his race, religion and national origin, as well as retaliated against him for filing a complaint with the EEOC (Doc. 37, ¶¶ 57-61; Doc. 72, p. 3). Plaintiff also brings a cause of action for discrimination in Count 2, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e,declares it unlawful for an employer to discharge or otherwise discriminate against "any individual" in the terms or conditions of employment "because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). "A plaintiff may meet his burden of proof under Title VII by offering either direct proof of discriminatory intent or by proving disparate treatment through the indirect, burden-shifting method outlined by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas." Contreras v. Suncast Corp., 237 F.3d 756, 759 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)).

The Seventh Circuit has discussed how the terms "direct" and "indirect" can be somewhat misleading in the context of proving employment discrimination, given that the distinction between these "two avenues of proof is 'vague.' " See Hemsworth, v. Quotesmith.com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Sylvester v. SOS Children's Villages Illinois, Inc., 453 F.3d 900, 903 (7th Cir. 2006)). Although direct proof of discrimination may certainly be demonstrated by a defendant's actual admission of discrimination, the direct method of proof is not limited to only this type of evidence. Additionally, a plaintiff may show direct evidence of discrimination through sufficient circumstantial evidence suggesting discrimination. Ptasznik v. St. Joseph Hosp., 464 F.3d 691, 695 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Cerutti v. BASF Corp., 349 F.3d 1055, 1063 (7th Cir. 2003) (chain of inferences must collectively form "a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence" in order to show intentional discrimination under the direct method of proof) (citation omitted). However, the circumstantial evidence must point directly to a discriminatory reason for the [adverse employment] decision." Id. (citing Cerutti, 349 F.3d at 1063).

Generally, circumstantial evidence can be grouped into three categories, each of which may be sufficient on its own to show direct evidence of discrimination:

(1) suspicious timing, ambiguous oral or written statements, or behavior toward or comments directed at other employees in the protected group;

(2) evidence, whether or not rigorously statistical, that similarly situated employees outside the protected class received systematically better treatment; and

(3) evidence where the employee was qualified for and failed to receive the desired treatment, and the employer's stated reason for ...


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