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Harris v. State

November 9, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan H. Lefkow


Pamela Harris filed a seven-count amended complaint against the State of Illinois, Department of Corrections ("IDOC"), Roger E. Walker, Jr., Debbie Denning, and Mary Sigler (collectively, "defendants"). Harris alleges discrimination and retaliation on the basis of race and other protected activities in violation of various federal and state statutes and state common law.*fn1 Before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, defendants' motion [#24] is denied.


Harris, an African-American, worked for IDOC for sixteen and a half years prior to her termination on December 15, 2008. In 2004, she was promoted to Supervisor of the Jessie Ma Houston Adult Transition Center ("Jessie Ma Houston"), an IDOC facility in Dixmoor, Illinois.

In April 2006, at Denning's request, Harris was transferred to the Dwight Correctional Center (the "DCC"), an IDOC facility in Dwight, Illinois, where she became Acting Assistant Warden of Operations. In June 2006, Harris was appointed Assistant Warden of Operations. At all relevant times, Sigler was the Warden at the DCC, Denning was Deputy Director of IDOC's Women and Family Division, and Walker was the IDOC Director.

On December 21, 2006, Harris received a report from an African-American inmate, Heather Weeden, that she had been kicked by a Caucasian correctional officer ("CO"), Carol Gurgone.*fn3 Although Weeden had spoken to Lieutenant Winters and CO Lynn Hodge, both Caucasian, about the incident, they had advised her not to press the issue as they would not act on it. This was despite the fact that Gurgone admitted to kicking Weeden. Harris reported the incident and coverup to Sigler, who claimed not to have known about the incident.*fn4 Sigler did not like that Harris reported a coverup by Winters and Hodge, both friends of Sigler's. Harris also informed Denning of the incident by telephone. Denning requested that Harris submit an incident report, which she did. IDOC's Internal Investigation Department looked into the coverup. During this investigation, Sigler represented that Winters and Hodge had reported the incident to her, which was not the case. The investigation concluded in late January 2007 and confirmed that Gurgone had kicked Weeden. Gurgone was then locked out of the DCC on February 20, 2007 and eventually terminated. Once Weeden was transferred out of the DCC, however, Gurgone returned to work at the DCC with Sigler's, Denning's, and Walker's approval. Sometime after Harris reported the incident and coverup, Sigler and Denning initiated an investigation of an incident where Harris allegedly left an inmate in a holding cell at the DCC for nearly five hours. On February 20, 2007, Harris complained to Denning of being racially discriminated against at the DCC and about the discriminatory practices of others there. In particular, she complained of the handling of an investigation into a report by an African-American CO, Beatrice Brownfield, that a Caucasian CO, Renee Bantista, had called Harris a racial slur. She also complained that Gurgone was treated differently from Lt. Milton Luster, an African-American. Denning admitted to Harris that there was a problem at the DCC but that she was not sure how to address it.

On February 22, 2007, Denning notified Harris that IDOC's Investigations and Intelligence Unit would not be investigating Harris's complaints. Harris then asked to speak to Rick Bard, IDOC's Chief of Operations and Denning's supervisor, about her complaints. When told that Walker, not Bard, was now Denning's supervisor, Harris requested to speak with Walker, but this request was denied. On February 28, 2007, Harris was told by Sergio Molina, Walker's executive assistant, that she should report to Jessie Ma Houston on March 1, 2007 to assume the role of Assistant Supervisor of Operations. She was not provided with reasons for the transfer, although at some point Walker provided legislators with false reasons for Harris's transfer. The transfer was effectively a demotion, as she was now working under an individual she had previously supervised prior to her 2006 transfer to the DCC.

Although working at Jessie Ma Houston, Harris continued to be under Sigler's and Denning's supervision. All her paperwork and personnel approval actions were "funneled through the [DCC] so it would appear as though her position had not changed and so Defendants Sigler and Denning could continue to exert control over [her]." Am. Compl. ¶ 45. On April 13, 2007, she received an oral reprimand from Denning for violating IDOC standards of conduct in leaving an inmate in a holding cell for nearly five hours. On May 3, 2007, Harris attended a performance review at the DCC with Sigler and Joni Stahlman, who is Caucasian and the Re-entry Manager for IDOC's Women and Family Services Division. At this meeting, she received an "acceptable" rating for her work from June 1, 2006 to June 1, 2007, lower than any other rating she had received during her employment with IDOC. This rating made her ineligible for a bonus in 2007. In May 2007, Harris's state vehicle was reassigned to Toyia Sims, IDOC's Policy Advisor to the Director. In late 2007, Sims requested that Harris campaign for a candidate supported by then Governor Blagojevich running against State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie. Harris refused to do so.

In August 2007, Harris filed a charge with the Illinois Department of Human Rights ("IDHR") and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging discrimination and retaliation. After IDOC received the IDHR charge in October 2007, on November 2, 2007, Walker appointed Duane Tucker the Assistant Warden of Operations at the DCC, the position Harris continued to occupy.

On December 1, 2008, shortly after informing IDOC that she intended to continue prosecuting her IDHR charge, Harris was placed on administrative leave and locked out of Jessie Ma Houston. On December 15, 2008, she received a letter from Walker informing her that her employment with IDOC was terminated with no explanation. Harris then filed a second charge of discrimination with the IDHR. The EEOC provided her with a notice of the right to sue on April 21, 2009.


A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges the court's subject matter jurisdiction. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). The burden of proof is on the party asserting jurisdiction. United Phosphorus, Ltd. v. Angus Chem. Co., 322 F.3d 942, 946 (7th Cir. 2003). In determining whether subject matter jurisdiction exists, the court must accept all well-pleaded facts alleged in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor. Sapperstein v. Hager, 188 F.3d 852, 855 (7th Cir. 1999). "Where evidence pertinent to subject matter jurisdiction has been submitted, however, 'the district court may properly look beyond the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint . . . to determine whether in fact subject matter jurisdiction exists.'" Id. (quoting United Transp. Union v. Gateway W. Ry. Co., 78 F.3d 1208, 1210 (7th Cir. 1996)) (internal citations omitted).

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6); Gen. Elec. Capital Corp. v. Lease Resolution Corp., 128 F.3d 1074, 1080 (7th Cir. 1997). In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true all well-pleaded facts in the plaintiff's complaint and draws all reasonable inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor. Dixon v. Page, 291 F.3d 485, 486 (7th Cir. 2002). In order to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must not only provide the defendant with fair notice of the claim's basis, but must also establish that the requested relief is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, --- U.S. ----, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed. 2d 868 (2009); see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed. 2d 929 (2007). The allegations in the complaint must be "enough to raise a ...

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