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Coleman v. Potter

October 19, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable David H. Coar


Plainiff Denise Coleman sued her employer, the U.S. Postal Service, alleging that it put her on off-duty status and then terminated her based on her race, gender, and disability, and in retaliation for reporting discrimination. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a); 29 U.S.C. § 794. She further alleges that the Postal Service failed to accommodate her disability. See 29 U.S.C. § 794. The Postal Service has moved for summary judgment on her claims. For the reasons that follow, the Postal Service's motion is GRANTED.


Coleman is an African-American woman who began working for the Postal Service in 1974. (Defendant's Rule 56.1 Statement of Material Facts ("DSOF") ¶ 1, 3.) She is a full-time mail clerk at the Chicago Bulk Mail Center and reports to the manager of maintenance operations. (Id. ¶ 2, 4.) That position was held by Jerome Jefferson, a black male, from 1992 until his retirement in January 2005. (Id. ¶ 4.) While under Jefferson's supervision Coleman received awards for her performance, most recently in 2002. (Plaintiff's Rule 56.1 Statement of Material Facts ("PSOF") ¶ 30; PSOF Tab 4, Jefferson Dep., Ex. 2.)

When Jefferson retired, a higher-level manager, William Sove, chose Willie Berry, also a black male, to replace Jefferson. (DSOF ¶ 8.) Coleman thought she should have been promoted into the manager position when Jefferson left. (DSOF ¶ 10.) It is unclear whether she was even eligible to apply, but the dispute is immaterial. In April 2005, a few months after Sove selected Berry for the manager position, Coleman emailed the plant manager, Gregory Johnson, complaining about how Berry treated her and asserting that she should have been given the promotion. (PSOF ¶ 21; PSOF Tab 5, Sove Dep., Exh.3.) Even read in the light most favorable to Coleman, however, the letter does not seem to allege that discrimination was the root of those complaints. (PSOF Tab 5, Sove Dep., Exh.3.) A month later, in May 2005, she also emailed Sove, complaining that Berry had changed the rules when he started as manager. (PSOF ¶ 22; PSOF Tab 5, Sove Dep., Exh. 5.) Any references to discrimination were oblique except that she threatened to file an "EEO" case. (PSOF Tab 5, Sove Dep., Exh. 5.)

In June 2005, Coleman requested that she be "advanced" 120 days of sick leave-that is, she asked permission to take more sick leave than she had available at that time. (DSOF ¶ 11.) Johnson denied the request explaining that Coleman had used her sick leave heavily and that she would be unable to earn that amount of sick leave before her planned retirement in three years. (Id. ¶ 12-13, 15-16.) Coleman denies telling Johnson that she was planning to retire. (PSOF Tab 2, Coleman Dep., p. 62 ln. 23-25, p.63 ln. 1-5.) Johnson was the final decisionmaker regarding such requests, though Coleman testified that Johnson told her that he would consult Sove. (DSOF ¶ 12, PSOF Tab 2, Coleman Dep., p. 61 ln. 16-20.)

On June 23, 2005, Coleman returned to work from the medical procedure and she provided Berry with her temporary medical restrictions, which greatly limited climbing stairs. (DSOF ¶ 19-20.) Her usual work station was up a flight of stairs, but Berry told her that she could work in the store room on the first floor. (Id. ¶ 21.) Coleman said she could not work in the store room because she had asthma; she testified that the chemicals in that room had caused her to have a severe asthma attack in 1988. (PSOF Response to DSOF ¶ 21; PSOF Coleman Dep. p. 34, ln. 24-25, p. 35, ln. 1-4; id. p. 71, ln. 10-17.) For reasons that Coleman and Berry dispute, Coleman did not work that day. (DSOF ¶ 22, PSOF Response to DSOF ¶ 22.) She returned a week later with revised medical restrictions that would allow her to climb one to two flights of stairs once or twice per day. (DSOF ¶ 23.) That would have allowed her to get to and from her work station. But though she used to clock in and out on the same floor as her work station, Berry now told her that all employees had to use a time clock that was one floor down. (PSOF Response to DSOF ¶ 24; PSOF Tab 2, Coleman Dep. p. 35, ln. 10-19.) This change would require more stairs than she could handle in a day, so Berry again told her she could work in the store room. (PSOF Tab 2, Coleman Dep. p. 35, ln. 20-22.) Coleman did not work that day either. (DSOF ¶ 25; PSOF Response to DSOF ¶ 25.) In the midst of this, in June and July, Coleman filed two EEO requests for pre-complaint counseling, asserting that Berry and Sove were discriminating against her. (PSOF ¶ 23.) On July 6, 2005 Berry issued Coleman a notice that she was considered absent without leave because she had not called in or worked in five days. (DSOF ¶ 26.)

Within a few days of receiving the AWOL notice Coleman sought psychiatric treatment at Northwestern Hospital. (DSOF ¶ 29.) She was admitted on July 12, 2005 for depression. (Id. ¶ 30; PSOF Tab 2, Coleman Dep., p. 75 ln. 20-25.) While in treatment Coleman expressed anger with Berry that the psychiatrist interpreted as a threat against Berry's life. (PSOF Tab 2, Coleman Dep., p. 76 ln. 10-24, p. 77 ln. 1-14.) The doctor discharged Coleman from the hospital on August 3 in stable condition, but before doing so the doctor informed Berry that it was her legal responsibility to tell him that Coleman had made a threat against Berry's life. (DSOF ¶ 33; PSOF Response to DSOF ¶ 33; DSOF Tab D, Berry Dep., p. 221 ln. 6-13.)

The same day that Berry learned of the threat, he notified Sove and another upper-level manager, Charles Von Rhein, and placed Coleman in "emergency off-duty status" without pay. (DSOF ¶ 34-35; PSOF ¶ 1.) Two weeks later, Berry filed a police report. (PSOF ¶ 17.) The Postal Service also launched an investigation of the incident, in which Von Rhein and Sove participated, but the investigation apparently was not complete for months. (DSOF ¶ 37-38.) Also in mid-August, Coleman filed an EEOC charge against Berry, Sove, and Von Rhein concerning the denial of advanced sick leave, Berry's alleged refusal to accommodate her medical restrictions in June, and a few earlier incidents when she was charged with absence without leave and when Berry refused a schedule change request. (DSOF ¶ 17; PSOF Response to DSOF ¶ 17; DSOF Tab I, p. 1.)

In December, Coleman's doctor wrote a letter to Sove stating that Coleman could return to work if she was not under Berry's supervision. (PSOF Tab 8, Coleman Decl., Att. 5.) Around the same time, Coleman filed a second EEOC charge against Berry, Sove, and Von Rhein, alleging that by putting her on off-duty status they were retaliating against her and discriminating against her on the basis of gender, race, and disability. (Dkt. 17, 1st Am. Compl., Exh. B.)

In the meantime, although Coleman was not working for the Postal Service, she continued working part-time for H&R Block during 2005, 2006, and 2007. (DSOF ¶ 49.)

In January 2006, Sove and Von Rhein terminated Coleman's employment. (DSOF ¶ 38.) The notice of removal stated that Coleman was being terminated based on a charge of "unacceptable conduct, as evidenced by your expressed homicidal ideations toward a postal manager." (PSOF Tab 7, Von Rhein Dep., Exh. 9, p. 1.) The notice further stated that Coleman had violated Section 665.24 of the USPS Employee & Labor Relations Manual, which prohibits threats of violence.*fn1 (Id. p.4; PSOF PSOF ¶ 2.)

Coleman filed a grievance with the Postal Workers Union concerning her termination. (DSOF ¶ 39.) The union arbitrator characterized the issue before him as follows: "Did the Postal Service have just cause to issue Grievant a Notice of Removal?" (DSOF Ex. H.) The arbitrator determined that Coleman's statements to her psychiatrist did not amount to a "true threat" and thus did not violate the Postal Service's regulations. (Id.) The arbitrator based this determination in part on his conclusion that Berry was not truly afraid that Coleman would carry out the threat. (Id.) The arbitrator further determined that under the circumstances, the Postal Service did not have just cause to terminate Coleman but should have instead referred her for a fitness-for-duty examination. (Id.) The arbitrator reinstated Coleman, subject to a fitness-for-duty examination because her treatment "raise[d] serious concerns about her fitness for duty, and under what conditions she might be able to work." (Id. p. 15-16.) After the arbitrator's decision issued in March 2007, Coleman completed the fitness-for-duty examination, and after further psychiatric treatment, she was allowed to return to work September 1, 2007. (PSOF ¶ 35.) Per the arbitration award she reported to a different supervisor, Shirley Evans. (Id.)

Coleman brought this lawsuit alleging that when the Postal Service put her on off-duty status and then terminated her, it discriminated against her on the basis of race, gender, and disability; retaliated against her for reporting such discrimination; and failed to accommodate a disability. She does not challenge the earlier instances of alleged discrimination, such as the incident regarding the store room, except as background for her claims regarding her termination. To support her claims of discrimination, she ...

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