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Benjamin v. Illinois Dep't Financial and Professional Regulation

March 1, 2010

REYNOLD BENJAMIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF FINANCIAL AND PROFESSIONAL REGULATION, DEAN MARTINEZ, JOHN HARRIS AND BRENT ADAMS, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Reynold Benjamin, a former supervisor at the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation ("IDFPR"), filed a five-count complaint against IDFPR and defendants Dean Martinez, John Harris and Brent Adams in their official and individual capacities. Plaintiff, who is of Indian descent, alleges he was retaliated against, and ultimately terminated, due to his race and national origin and that he was discriminated and retaliated against for engaging in protected speech under the First Amendment. Plaintiff brings claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") (Counts I and II, as to IDFPR), 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause (Count III, as to Martinez and Harris) and First Amendment violations (Count IV, as to Martinez and Harris), and the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (Count V, as to all defendants). Defendants IDFPR, Martinez and Adams's partial motion to dismiss is denied. Defendant Harris's motion to dismiss all counts against him is granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background

Plaintiff is non-Hispanic and of Indian descent. He was hired on August 5, 2002 as the Supervisor of the Currency Exchange Section with the predecessor agency to IDFPR. On December 16, 2005, plaintiff was promoted to Assistant Director for the Bureau of Residential Finance in the Division of Banking and reported directly to the Director of the Division, Jorge Solis, who is Hispanic. In November 2007, plaintiff began an additional temporary assignment maintaining and coordinating a predatory lender database, for which he received "Temporary Assignment Pay" and "Bi-Lingual Pay" based on his knowledge of the Hindi language.

Defendant Martinez, who is Hispanic, is the former Secretary of IDFPR. Defendant John Harris, as then-Governor Blagojevich's Chief of Staff, had supervisory authority over Martinez. He also had authority and responsibility over matters relating to expenditure of state funds, equitable and non-discriminatory employment practices of state government, complaints of ghost payrollers, concerns about government waste, and questions on political corruption. Defendant Adams was the IDFPR's Director of Policy and reported directly to Martinez. Adams is currently the Acting Secretary of IDFPR.

Plaintiff alleges that Martinez caused Mario Pantoja and David Espinoza to obtain employment at IDFPR under plaintiff and/or Solis. However, plaintiff claims that Pantoja and Espinoza were permitted to bypass plaintiff's authority and report directly to Martinez. During their employment, Pantoja and Espinoza received preferential treatment, assignments and promotions based on their national origin, political affiliation, and political work performed for allies of Martinez and Governor Blagojevich. According to plaintiff, Martinez accelerated and manipulated Pantoja's and Espinoza's promotions and assignments at IDFPR based on impermissible motivations.

Beginning in 2006, plaintiff criticized Pantoja's and Espinoza's work performance and complained to Solis. Eventually, plaintiff's complaints were brought to the attention of Martinez and Harris. Plaintiff claims he was subjected to discrimination and retaliation based on his race, national origin, and for complaining about his Hispanic subordinates, including Pantoja and Espinoza. In December 2007, Andy Fox, IDFPR Chief of Staff, allegedly threatened to terminate plaintiff and told him that if he wanted to keep his Temporary Assignment Pay, he would have to leave Pantoja and Espinoza alone. During the same time period, plaintiff alleges that Solis informed him that Martinez directed plaintiff to "get along" with Espinoza and Pantoja, "or it would not be good for [plaintiff] and his employment would not work out." Compl. ¶ 24.

On January 18, 2008, a "conflictual interaction" occurred between plaintiff, Pantoja, and Espinoza. Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff alleges that the next day he was discriminated against because Martinez removed his Temporary Assignment Pay. Plaintiff further alleges that he was subjected to a "retaliatory investigation" into his attendance and timekeeping. Id. ¶¶ 31-33.

Plaintiff alleges that on April 16, 2007*fn1 , Harris was provided with a memorandum that plaintiff authored, which described "internal staffing problems," including that Pantoja and Espinoza were protected by Martinez and Fox, were not doing their jobs, received preferential treatment, and were "ghost pay rollers." Id. ¶ 29. Then, on May 5, 2008, Martinez and plaintiff had a meeting. Plaintiff claims Martinez told him that Harris had received a letter (which plaintiff assumed was his memorandum), and that the letter made Martinez, Solis, and plaintiff look bad. Plaintiff further claims Martinez gave him a "special assignment" that was unfavorable and told him "I could fire you if I want and nobody can stop me," and "Watch what you say, your conversations get back to me." Id. ¶ 35.

On May 6, 2008, plaintiff asked Solis to stop the transfer to the "special assignment" because is was "obvious and blatant retaliation and a set up for failure." Id. ¶ 36. Plaintiff also told Solis that if the "special assignment" was valid, Pantoja was the logical choice. On May 9, 2008, Solis told plaintiff that he had talked to Martinez, but that plaintiff was still tasked with the "special assignment." Plaintiff then wrote a second memorandum on May 10, 2008, in which he claimed Hispanic employees of IDFPR were targeting plaintiff and provided reasons not to transfer him to the "special assignment." On May 19, 2008, Solis informed plaintiff that his transfer was "put on hold." Id. ¶ 39.

Sometime between June 6 and 9, 2008, Harris met with Solis to discuss the information in plaintiff's two memoranda, and plaintiff claims that Solis confirmed all the information contained therein. Immediately after that meeting, Harris went to the head of IDFPR, Martinez, to inform him of plaintiff's complaints against IDFPR employees. Plaintiff alleges that a few days after the meeting, on June 9, 2008, Solis sent an email to Harris entitled "I need your help," in which Solis wrote that Martinez called him "sounding very irate" because Solis and Harris had met and also because Solis chose plaintiff over Pantoja and Espinoza. Id. ¶¶ 41, 42. Plaintiff further asserts that Solis told Harris that Martinez wanted to run the Division of Banking, which concerned Solis because he enjoyed his role as Director.

Plaintiff alleges that after the meeting between Solis and Harris, Martinez began to retaliate against Solis by removing Solis's authority as Director "in material respects." Id. ¶ 45. Plaintiff claims that Harris "acted in concert with and knowingly supported Martinez" and "knowingly permitted" the alleged retaliatory acts against plaintiff and Solis. Id. ¶¶ 44, 45.

On June 19, 2008, Solis informed plaintiff that he had to complete Espinoza's performance evaluation. After Espinoza completed a draft evaluation with a favorable rating, plaintiff wrote to Solis, stating that he believed Espinoza deserved a lower rating, but he feared retaliation if he gave Espinoza a poor rating. Ultimately, plaintiff refused to sign Espinoza's evaluation.

On June 24, 2008, plaintiff's "Bi-Lingual Pay" was removed. On June 30, 2008, plaintiff submitted a complaint to Governor Blagojevich's Office of Inspector General ("OIG") against Martinez, alleging "hiring improprieties, nepotism, racial discrimination, possible ghost pay rolling, political pressure to help (Hispanic) campaigns on the weekends, promotions to friends and relatives (Hispanic) due to political affiliation." Id. ΒΆ 48. Plaintiff also complained to OIG about Martinez's threat to fire him, Pantoja's and Espinoza's absences, and perceived retaliation against him and Solis. On July 30, 2008, plaintiff met with ...


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