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Cathleen Schandelmeier-Bartels v. Chicago Parkdistrict

February 8, 2011


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 07 C 00922-David H. Coar, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hamilton, Circuit Judge.


Before MANION, WILLIAMS, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

While employed by the Chicago Park District, Cathleen Schandelmeier, a Caucasian, reported to her immediate supervisor that she had witnessed a possible incident of child abuse against an African-American child by his African-American aunt.

Schandelmeier's African-American supervisor exploded in a racial tirade, and Schandelmeier was fired from the Park District within hours. A jury heard this evidence and ruled in favor of Schandelmeier on her claim of race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, awarding her $200,000 in compensatory damages. The Park District moved for judgment as a matter of law and, alternatively, for a new trial. The district court ruled in favor of the Park District on its motion for judgment as a matter of law, finding that the supervisor's demonstrated racial bias could not have infected the Park District's termination decision, and that the jury's finding otherwise was therefore unreasonable. Schandelmeier appeals, and the Park District cross-appeals from the district court's conditional denial of its motion for a new trial.*fn1

We reverse the district court's grant of the Park District's motion for judgment as a matter of law and reinstate the jury verdict for the plaintiff as to liability. We affirm in part and remand in part the district court's conditional denial of the Park District's motion for a new trial, affirming with regard to the jury instructions and the improper statements made during plaintiff's counsel's closing argument, but we remand with instructions to enter a judgment for a reduced amount of compensatory damages.

I. The Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a district court to enter judgment against a party who has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial if "a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue." The stringent standard for a judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 is the same whether the verdict under review was for the plaintiff or the defendant, and regardless of the underlying legal issues of the case. Under Rule 50, both the district court and an appellate court must construe the facts strictly in favor of the party that prevailed at trial. See Tart v. Illinois Power Co., 366 F.3d 461, 464 (7th Cir. 2004), citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000). Although the court examines the evidence to determine whether the jury's verdict was based on that evidence, the court does not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. See Waite v. Board of Trustees of Illinois Community College Dist. No. 508, 408 F.3d 339, 343 (7th Cir. 2005), citing Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150.

A. The J.J. Incident and Schandelmeier's Termination

Schandelmeier began working for the Chicago Park District on April 23, 2006 as Cultural Coordinator for the South Shore Cultural Center. Her immediate supervisor was Andrea Adams, who worked as the facility's Center Director. Adams, in turn, reported to Alonzo Williams, who was responsible for the daily management of the Park District programs for the South Lakefront Region. Williams reported to Megan McDonald, who was Director of Lakefront Operations for the Park District. Mary Ann Rowland was human resources manager for the Lakefront region. Adams and Williams are African-American, and McDonald and Rowland are Caucasian.

Schandelmeier was responsible for supervising the Cultural Center's after-school program and its summer camp. Her job duties included creating and adhering to a program schedule, following program rotations, documenting all "incidents" involving children, and supervising children and staff. At trial, the Park District took pains to prove to the jury that Schandelmeier was far from a perfect employee. She struggled with some of the administrative tasks required in her job, and Adams documented those issues in several memos to Schandelmeier. Those memos and other examples of Schandelmeier's administrative failings were presented to the jury. But Schandelmeier did not claim to be a perfect employee, and perfection is not a requirement for protection under Title VII.

Viewing the evidence through the Rule 50 lens, in the light most favorable to Schandelmeier, the pivotal event in her employment occurred on July 31, 2006, the day before her termination. An African-American child, "J.J.," was suspended from summer camp for misbehavior, and his aunt came to pick him up. While J.J. and his aunt were in a different room, Schandelmeier heard the sound of flesh being struck and a child screaming. She followed the sounds and saw J.J.'s aunt kneeling over him with her arm raised above her head, a belt looped in her hand. J.J. had a welt on his arm and was crying. Schandelmeier told J.J.'s aunt to stop, and the aunt left the Cultural Center with J.J. in tow.

Schandelmeier reported what she had seen and heard to Adams. Adams explained the J.J. incident as "a cultural thing," because "this is the way we discipline children in our culture." (Schandelmeier assumed, reasonably, that Adams intended to refer to African-American culture.) Adams also told her that, before Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote the book, It Takes a Village, "that was the philosophy that her culture had abided by." Adams then explained to Schandelmeier that she (Adams) had the "unspoken permission" of the parents of the African-American junior counselors at camp "to grab them and put them back into line."*fn2

Schandelmeier asked what she should do. Adams told her that under Illinois law, if she believed she had observed child abuse, she was obligated to report it to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. But, Adams said, because she had not seen what Schandel-meier saw, Adams would leave the decision to report or not to report to Schandelmeier. That night, Schandelmeier made her decision. She called DCFS and was advised that she also had to call the police within 24 hours of the incident so they could conduct a "well child check." The next morning Schandelmeier called the police and requested such a check.

At approximately 11:15 a.m. on August 1st, Adams called Schandelmeier into her office. J.J.'s aunt was in the room. Adams confronted Schandelmeier, saying, "You sent the police to this woman's house?" When Schandelmeier tried to explain, and Adams learned that Schandelmeier had not seen the aunt's belt connect with J.J.'s flesh, Adams screamed and "went ballistic." She said, "you didn't see the impact of the belt? You saw nothing!" By way of illustration, Adams told Schandelmeier that she had once tried to hit her daughter with a belt but hit the wall instead, and her daughter still screamed. She reiterated that "this is the way we discipline children in our culture," and she told Schandelmeier that it was a cultural difference that Schandelmeier did not under-stand. Adams then demanded, "who [was Schandelmeier] to try to tell this woman how to raise her child?" Schandelmeier responded that she had friends who were black and who did not beat their children. Adams countered, "[Y]our friends who are black tell you that they don't beat their children and then they go home and beat their children." She then ordered Schandelmeier to leave her office, saying "I can't stand the sight of you, Cathleen." Schandelmeier testified that she had never been yelled at like that in her adult life, and that Adams was "violently angry" and "spitting mad" during this exchange.

Adams then put fingers to keyboard and wrote a memo to McDonald, copying Williams. The memo was dated August 1st and its subject was "Cathleen Schandelmeier." It began with the sentence: "Per our conversation, Cathleen has no order over camp." Adams then recounted certain events to demonstrate Schandelmeier's poor performance. She accused Schandelmeier of failing to properly supervise children at camp (i.e., she was "not watching the group") and described an instance in which Schandelmeier had failed to report an emergency to Cultural Center security so they could direct first responders to the scene. Adams wrote that Schandelmeier had had to rewrite incident reports because her originals were not thorough or did not make sense, or because necessary information was either omitted or scratched out. Adams recounted that under Schandelmeier's watch, the camp's food program had received write-ups, and she accused Schandelmeier of being difficult to locate when Adams needed her.

Finally, Adams recounted the "J.J. incident," calling it "the last straw," but leaving out any reference to the racial tirade described by Schandelmeier:

Yesterday and today was the last straw. . . . A child had several write-ups. He has been suspended and we agreed upon being expelled from camp. She called and spoke to the mother. The aunt came to pick him up. The aunt was upset about her nephew's behavior but in control. She took the child to another room and apparently gave the child a spanking. Cathleen saw the belt and heard the child crying.

Cathleen reported to me that she saw the aunt "abusing" the child and the child had bruises on his arm. Hollee spoke with Cathleen about how some families believe in spankings. After extensive conversation with Hollee, Cathleen spoke to me. She stated that she is mandated to report abuse and that she must report it. I told her that yes, we are mandated. Since I did not see the incident, she is in a better position to know whether or not it should be reported.

Based on my conversation with Cathleen, I trusted that being expelled was the best corrective action. As it turns out, of eight conduct reports, only half had ever been discussed with the parent. Cathleen mentioned this to me after the fact. The day was long so I suggested we review everything the next day (Tuesday).

The aunt came in today (Tuesday) to speak with me. She stated that the police [came] to her home. They checked out the living environment and examined the child. They found no signs of any abuse. They found a well and happy child. I asked Cathleen to sit with us and talk (she did not remember meeting the aunt the day before). Bottomline, Cathleen admitted that she did not see the aunt strike the child. Cathleen made assumptions that this child was being abused simply based on the loud screams.

It is difficult working with someone that does not follow instructions and continuously follows their own directive. The reputation of this camp is now being questioned by both parents and staff. We had a parent state that she waited for two years to get her child in and [is] disappointed at the operation of camp. Something has to give.

The same day, human resources director Rowland drafted Schandelmeier's termination letter. Williams and Adams delivered the letter at 6:00 p.m. on August 1st, ending Schandelmeier's employment immediately.

B. The "Cat's Paw" Theory

To prevail on her Title VII claim, Schandelmeier had to prove that she was terminated because of her race. Specifically, she had to "provide direct or circumstantial evidence that the decisionmaker has acted for a prohibited reason. A decisionmaker is the person 'responsible for the contested decision.' " Rogers v. City of Chicago, 320 F.3d 748, 754 (7th Cir. 2003) (emphasis in original), quoting Chiaramonte v. Fashion Bed Group, Inc., 129 F.3d 391, 396 (7th Cir. 1997). The evidence clearly supports the conclusion that Adams, Schandelmeier's immediate supervisor, harbored an illegal racial animus, but Adams was not the person who pulled the trigger to end Schandelmeier's employment. The person who did- either McDonald or Rowland (the evidence is inconsistent on that point)-did not harbor a racial animus against her. Schandelmeier therefore had to demonstrate some causal connection between Adams's bias and McDonald's or Rowland's decision to terminate her employment. She had to bridge that gap.

The existence of such a link between an employment decision made by an unbiased individual and the impermissible bias of a non-decisionmaking co-worker has become known in this circuit as the "cat's paw" theory. The name is based on an old fable in which a scheming monkey convinces an unwitting cat to fetch roasting chestnuts from a fire. The cat burns its paw and the monkey gets the chestnuts.*fn3 In employment discrimina-tion cases, the "cat's paw" is the unwitting manager or supervisor who is persuaded to act based on another's illegal bias. With sufficient evidence, we permit juries to draw an inference that another employee's impermissible bias infected a decision when a plaintiff is able to ...

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