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Lara Hill v. Norcomm Public Safety Communications

December 22, 2010

LARA HILL, PLAINTIFF
v.
NORCOMM PUBLIC SAFETY COMMUNICATIONS, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION AND ORDER

Lara Hill sued the Village of Franklin Park ("the Village"), various police officers in the Franklin Park Police Department ("FPPD"), Norcomm Public Safety Communications, Inc. ("Norcomm"), and Michael Tillman alleging employment discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-1 et seq. Hill also alleges a civil conspiracy against Norcomm and Tillman for deprivation of her constitutional right to equal protection, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985. Hill exhausted her administrative remedies and her case was filed within 90 days of receiving her notice of right to sue. All parties other than Norcomm and Tillman have settled. Norcomm and Tillman move for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 [#222]. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

BACKGROUND*fn1

I. Hill's Employment at Norcomm

Norcomm is an Illinois corporation that provides 911 dispatch services for local municipalities, including the Village. Norcomm staffed its Communication Center with 911 dispatchers known as Communications Operators ("C/Os"). On January 19, 2001, Norcomm hired Hill as a part-time C/O with Norcomm for its Franklin Park Communication Center. Prior to, during, and after her part-time employment with Norcomm, Hill also worked for the Village as a full-time police officer. At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Tillman was employed as the director of Norcomm's the Communication Center.

Norcomm has in place a progressive discipline policy that is designed to discourage repetition of the same or similar offenses that occur in the course of C/Os' highly sensitive 911 dispatching duties, which literally pertain to life-and-death matters. The discipline policy is laid out in Norcomm's Operations Manual.*fn2 A verbal warning is the lowest level of discipline under the policy, followed by written warnings, suspensions, and then termination. Examples of infractions that may warrant a verbal warning include tardiness, failure to complete daily duties, improper uniform, and inability to work with others. Norcomm's disciplinary notice form reflects the progressive discipline policy by including spaces for noting "Previous Warnings," "Action to be taken," and "Consequences should incident occur again."*fn3 Six months after being issued a verbal warning, the warning notice effectively expires and no longer counts against the C/O on the progressive scale. Nevertheless, the verbal warning notice remains in the C/O's personnel file permanently so that supervisors may determine whether the C/O has a history or pattern of continual disciplinary actions over a longer time period. Disciplinary issues that occurred more than six months prior are still considered for purposes of determining a course of action for new disciplinary issues that arise.

During the course of Hill's five-year employment history with Norcomm, she received a total of four documented verbal warnings. In addition, Tillman documented seven errors she made while on duty, although she was not formally reprimanded for these seven incidents. Hill's disciplinary record spans from November 2003 to July 2006.

A. Hill's Performance Problems While on Dispatching Duty

On November 16, 2003, Hill sent a memo to Tillman about her interactions the day before with a fellow C/O, and she sent a copy to Commander Michael Witz of the FPPD. In the memo, Hill accused the C/O of poor job performance. She also accused him of making a racial slur against her. In a response memo dated November 19, 2003, Tillman expressed his displeasure with Hill's memo and her perceived inability to prioritize her job duties. He also wrote that certain complaints she discussed regarding her difficulty working with other dispatchers meant that she should consider resigning if these personality conflicts continued.

On January 13, 2004, Hill sent a fire truck to the wrong location. Tillman sent Hill a memo two days later asking her to provide an explanation for this oversight. Hill acknowledged the mistake, and Tillman did not reprimand her. Similarly, on June 8, 2004, Hill and another C/O missed radio traffic while on duty, which resulted in a 10-minute delay in an emergency vehicle's arriving on the scene. Hill stated that she did not remember hearing the call, and she did not receive any formal reprimand for this error either.

On September 5, 2004, a call from a fire department came in seeking mutual aid from the Village's fire department for a fire in Northlake. Hill and other C/O's failed to answer the call. As a result of this error, Hill received her first verbal warning from Tillman.

Within a two-month period in late 2005 and early 2006, Hill was notified twice of mistakes she made while on dispatch. On December 5, 2005, during the first ten minutes of a traffic stop, Hill identified a police officer's location as "Franklin," without noting the numerical address. Tillman gave her a verbal warning. On January 29, 2006, Hill received a fire alarm call at a grade school. Official policy dictated that the fire department should be dispatched to all trouble alarms that do not restore after going off, but Hill failed to dispatch the fire department or document the occurrence. Hill acknowledged that she made a mistake. She was not formally reprimanded.

On September 8, 2005, one of her co-workers wrote Tillman a memo in which she accused Hill of personally attacking her in an inappropriate manner during a shift. Tillman met with Hill about the incident. Hill agreed to provide a date on which she, Tillman, and Daly could meet to resolve conflict between the two women, but Hill never provided a date and no further action was taken. Later in the month, however, Tillman and Hill exchanged emails in which Tillman listed several co-workers with whom Hill had had difficulty during her tenure at Norcomm. Although Hill was never formally reprimanded for any dispute she had with a co-worker, Tillman harbored concerns about Hill's ability to work amicably with other dispatchers in the stressful work environment.

B. Hill's Disciplinary Record for Failing to Wear Uniform

As early as March, 2003, Hill understood that Norcomm adhered to a policy requiring all dispatchers to wear their uniform shirts during a shift. In May 2003, and again in March 2004 Tillman posted a memo at the dispatch center reminding all employees about the uniform policy. On August 25, 2004, Hill received a verbal warning for failing to wear her uniform shirt. This was her third verbal warning.

Approximately 18 months later, on March 9, 2006, Tillman entered the command center and noticed that Hill was not wearing her uniform shirt. Unprompted, Hill initiated the conversation by saying, "Don't even ask!" Undeterred, Tillman asked her why she was not wearing her uniform, and Hill provided an explanation that she no longer remembers. As a result, Tillman wrote up an employee-warning notice for Hill's failure to wear her uniform. Tillman then called Hill to his office, handed her the warning form, and explained that she was receiving a verbal warning for not wearing her shirt that day. Hill stated that she forgot her shirt and that everybody forgets their shirt. Tillman explained that while some other co-workers who do not wear their uniform receive verbal or written warnings as well. In response, Hill dropped the warning form on Tillman's desk and left his office without signing the warning form to acknowledge her receipt of it. Tillman followed Hill out to the dispatch center and asked her if she was going to sign the warning form. Hill did not provide an affirmative response, and Tillman repeated the question three more times. After repeatedly refusing to sign the form, Tillman sent her home for the day.

The next day, March 10th, Tillman wrote a memo to Hill detailing her actions the day before. In the memo, he wrote that Hill's behavior was "insubordinate" and stressed that her signature on the warning form (which she had not signed yet) indicated only that the disciplinary matter was discussed and that she understood what she was being written up for-it was not an admission of culpability. The memo advised Hill of the proper procedure for disputing a warning, which Hill failed to follow. "Instead," Tillman wrote, "you chose to be insubordinate by refusing to sign the warning and walking out of the office before finishing our conversation." Defs.' Ex. 18. The memo also stressed that Hill's part-time status did not excuse her from the same standards as every other employee. The memo included the following warning:

Your continuance of employment with this company is conditional upon a few things: First, any additional acts of insubordination will result in termination.

Second, you must read and sign this form . . . . Third, you must read and sign the verbal warning issued for the uniform violation. Failing to do so will result in your termination.

Id. On March 14th, Hill and Tillman met again regarding this incident. Hill read, signed, and indicated that she understood the memo and the conditional terms of her continued employment with Norcomm.

Despite these various incidents, prior to and during 2006 Hill received generally favorable evaluations in her performance reviews. On June 28, 2005, Tillman gave Hill an evaluation in which he rated her as "Meets Requirements." Tillman also praised Hill for her performance as a C/O and recommended that she receive the maximum raise based on her performance evaluation. In May 2006, Norcomm management authorized another raise for Hill. Tillman did not encounter any further disciplinary issues with Hill until June 2006.

C. Scheduling and Communication Problems

As mentioned above, Hill had been a police officer with the Village since 1994. Tillman was aware that her primary duties on the police force took priority over her secondary employment as a 911 dispatcher. For example, Tillman testified that sometimes an officer had to cancel a shift at the last minute due to other more pressing police responsibilities. In such cases, Tillman had shown a willingness to make an exception for the officer's tardiness or inability to work dispatch so long as he was given advance notice. On May 18, 2006, Hill sent an email to Tillman regarding her availability for the month of June. In that email, she wrote that she was "waiting to find out my summer assignment with [the FPPD]" but she would turn in the June days she could work "for sure." Pl.'s Ex. O. She also advised him that if days were still left over, she would have an answer later as to whether she could work more. Tillman responded, "Ok" Id. Hill also provided Tillman with the July days she said she could work for sure. She never informed him that she might not be able to fulfill this commitment.

On June 11, 2006, Hill was absent--a so-called "no call/no show." Hill told Tillman that she had overslept. According to the Norcomm operations manual, a no call/no show is considered voluntary resignation from the company. Defs.' Ex. 1, at 11 ¶ I. This notwithstanding, Tillman accepted Hill's explanation and said that "it is unlike you to not show up for work." Pl.'s Ex. P. Hill did not receive a warning for her no call/no show.

During the morning of June 28, 2006, Hill received a memo from her Deputy Chief informing her that effective July 9, she would be "temporarily transferred to the afternoon watch of the Patrol Division until school session begins." Pl.'s Ex. R. Later that morning at 11:49 a.m., Hill sent Tillman an email concerning her July schedule: "Cancel all my July days, I cannot work them. Thanks." Defs.' Ex. 6. At 12:25 p.m., Tillman replied, "Okay, all of them?" Id. Hill did not respond, and she never explaining her reason for canceling her schedule.

That afternoon, Hill took off three weeks from her employment with Norcomm-time she considered vacation. She stayed home and did not leave town. Due to Hill's absence, Tillman had to find ...


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