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Michael Witherspoon v. City of Waukegan

March 30, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Ronald A. Guzman


Michael Witherspoon sued the City of Waukegan for race discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. A jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant on Witherspoon's discrimination claim and in favor of Witherspoon on his retaliation claim and awarded him $10,000.00 in compensatory damages. Before the Court is defendant's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law as to plaintiff's retaliation claim. For the reasons provided in this Memorandum Opinion and Order, the Court denies the motion.


In October 2000, the City of Waukegan hired plaintiff, an African-American, as a Maintenance Worker I. (Trial Tr. vol.1, 22, 32, June 22, 2010.) In this position, he was in charge of the plumbing, heating and cooling systems in the City's downtown buildings and supervising custodians. (Id. 22.) In March 2005, plaintiff was denied a promotion as Building Maintenance Supervisor, and the job was instead given to Bruce Kennedy, who is Caucasian.

(Id. 54-56.) Thereafter, on March 31, 2005, Witherspoon filed an American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees ("AFSCME") official grievance form alleging race discrimination; specifically that the City had a policy of not promoting African-Americans to supervisory positions. (Id. 57-58.)

Shortly thereafter, plaintiff took a leave of absence to have knee surgery and returned to work without physical restrictions on June 6, 2005. (Id. 66-68.) On June 15, 2005, the Director of Public Works William ("Biddy") Johnston and Safety Officer Larry Matson, among others, held a meeting with plaintiff about his grievance. (Id. 62.) At the meeting, plaintiff was told that one of the reasons he did not receive the promotion was because of his job performance. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 148-50, June 23, 2010.) Thereafter, for various reasons explained below, plaintiff felt like he was being retaliated against at work for filing the AFSCME grievance. (Trial Tr. vol. 1, 69.)

Consequently, on July 27, 2005 plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging that the City discriminated and retaliated against him on the basis of race. (Id. 69.) Specifically, Witherspoon believes he suffered the following in retaliation for filing the AFSCME grievance, or the EEOC charge or both:

A. Uniform

First, on June 10, 2005, plaintiff testified that he received a memorandum on his time card stating that all non-supervisory employees were required to wear a uniform. (Id. 64.) The memorandum was from Biddy Johnston to Bruce Kennedy. (Id.) Although the memorandum referred to all employees, plaintiff felt it was intended for him because it was allegedly posted on his time card. (Id.) Plaintiff was never required to wear a uniform and thought that the memorandum was another incident of retaliation for filing a grievance. (Id.) At the time he received the memorandum, however, plaintiff was wearing a uniform he had been assigned a month earlier. (Id. 65.)

B. Menial tasks

Second, Witherspoon testified that after he returned from knee surgery his supervisor Bruce Kennedy gave him menial tasks to perform. (Id. 59.) Specifically, the only menial task plaintiff testified about was changing light bulbs. (Id.) Plaintiff also testified that Kennedy knew about his AFSCME grievance. (Id. 59-61.)

C. Commercial Driver's License

Third, on August 12, 2005, plaintiff received a memorandum from Johnston stating that he was required to obtain a commercial driver's license ("CDL") by September 13, 2005. (Id. 66-68.) Although it is undisputed that Maintenance Worker I's are required to have a CDL, plaintiff testified that when he was hired no one ever asked him if he had one or told him that he was required to get one until five years after he was hired. (Id.) Plaintiff also testified that he thought it would take six months to obtain a CDL, and that he did not think it was possible to obtain it in a month. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 158, 161.) Matson testified that he did not realize plaintiff did not have a CDL until he was reviewing plaintiff's grievance, shortly after he had compiled a list of employees with CDLs for random drug testing, which he was required to do by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and noticed plaintiff's name was not on the list. (Trial Tr. vol. 3, 456, June 24, 2010.)

D. Alleged Termination

Last, on August 16, 2005, plaintiff returned from a doctor's appointment with a physician's note. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 70.) The note stated: "May return to work with restrictions-no aggressive squatting, running, or standing. May perform light work. No lifting over 20 lbs." (Joint Trial Ex. 10, Physician's Note, August 16, 2005.) Plaintiff testified that he gave the note to his "work center supervisor," whom he saw discuss the note with Larry Matson, and plaintiff went back to work. (Trial Tr. vol. 1, 70.)

Plaintiff returned to work on August 17, 2005 with a knee brace and the same physician's note. (Id. 71.) After seeing the note, Larry Matson told plaintiff to go home without an explanation. (Id.) On September 20, 2005, plaintiff received a letter from the City of Waukegan. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 82.) The letter stated that plaintiff's department at the City of Waukegan did not have light-duty positions or a light-duty policy and that they looked forward to his return once he recovered. (Id.) On October 25, 2005, plaintiff filed a second charge with the EEOC alleging that defendant retaliated against him in violation of Title VII when he was told to obtain a CDL within a month's time and when he was sent home without explanation on August 17, 2005. (Id. 88.)


When ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court does not reweigh the evidence presented at trial or make credibility determinations; instead, the court reviews the evidence making all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000). Ultimately, the question the court must decide is whether the jury was presented with a "legally sufficient amount of evidence from which it could reasonably derive its verdict." Massey v. Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Ill., 226 F.3d 922, 924 (7th Cir. 2000). Although a legally sufficient amount of evidence need not be overwhelming it must be more than a "mere scintilla." Id. ("[T]his is fundamentally the same standard that we use . . . on summary judgment, with the important difference that we now know exactly what evidence was put before the jury."). As the Seventh Circuit has reiterated, "overturning a jury verdict is not something [the court] do[es] lightly." Id. at 925 (citation omitted).

At this juncture (after a Title VII trial on the merits), the only relevant legal inquiry that the Court must determine is whether plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to allow a rational jury to find that he was a victim of retaliation. Diettrich v. Nw. Airlines, Inc., 168 F.3d 961, 965 (7th Cir. 1999); see also David v. Caterpillar, Inc., 324 F.3d 851, 858 (7th Cir. 2003). Notwithstanding this well established standard, defendant argues that the legal issue here is whether plaintiff established a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting apparatus. See Def.'s Renewed Mot. at 2 (arguing that plaintiff failed to established that he was treated less favorably than similarly situated employees who did not engage in protected activity). As the Court has already explained to defendant, and as the Supreme Court has held, this burden-shifting apparatus applies to pretrial proceedings, not to the jury's evaluation of the evidence at trial. See U.S. Postal Serv. Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 714-15 (1983); see, e.g., Hall v. Gary Cmty. Sch. Corp., 298 F.3d 672, 675 (7th Cir. 2002) (McDonnell Douglas framework is unnecessary when reviewing judgments as a matter of law); Millbrook v. IBP, Inc., 280 F.3d 1169, 1174 (7th Cir. 2002) (once a trial is complete, "the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas falls away"); Massey, 226 F.3d at 925 (after trial "we need not tarry on the to's and fro's" of the McDonnell Douglas framework). Once the judge finds that the plaintiff ...

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