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Catherine L. Coen v. Sally D. Coffelt

March 31, 2011


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


Plaintiff Catherine Coen brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Lake County, Sally Coffelt, after plaintiff was terminated. She alleges that Coffelt retaliated against her for supporting Coffelt's political opponent in the November 2008 election and the formation of a labor union. Before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the motion.


1. Plaintiff's Employment with the Lake County Circuit Clerk

Defendant Sally Coffelt has been the elected Clerk of the Circuit Court of Lake County, Illinois ("Clerk's office") from 1980 to the present. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 4.) Plaintiff Catherine Coen was an employee of the Clerk's office from April 25, 1990 to November 7, 2008. (Id. ¶ 3.) Coen began as a clerk and was ultimately promoted to principal clerk in July 1994. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) As a principal clerk, her responsibilities included working at the customer counter taking in money, filing pleadings and new cases, handling the mail, answering telephones and training other clerks (on a limited basis). (Id. ¶¶ 11, 13.) Plaintiff also acted as a temporary supervisor for two years, but did not have the title of supervisor or any supervisory authority. (Id.)

During the course of her employment, plaintiff received annual employment reviews that were completed by her supervisor and reviewed and signed by Coffelt. (Id. ¶¶ 14-15, 18, 20, 23.) Coen's employment review for 2006 contained the following comments: "Improve attitude when asked to help with other departments[,]" "do not display negative attitude." (Id. ¶¶ 14-15.) Also on the 2006 review, Coen received a "2" out of a possible "5" in the category "Assist at various times with the general counter. Waits on public as well as answers phones. Internal and external communications." A "2" means "needs improvement." (Id. ¶ 17.) This category has the least weight in her overall employment review. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 4.) In all other categories on her employment review plaintiff received a "4" out of "5." (Id.)

Coen's 2007 employment review had the following comments: "make sure you only worry about your job and not be concerned about others" and "[k]eep opinions to yourself." (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 16, 19.) Coen's employment review for 2008, which was signed by Coffelt on October 15, 2008, stated: "You [Coen] have had a tendency not to work as a team player and make comments that have a negative impact within the office" and "[n]eed[] to improve verbal skills in and attempt to have a more positive attitude or keep comments to yourself." (Id. ¶ 21.) Also on the 2008 review, Coen received a "1" out of "5" in the category "Willing to assist. Internal and external communications." (Id. ¶ 22.) A score of "1" means "unsatisfactory." (Id.) However, plaintiff's 2008 employment review indicated that she was "meet[ing] expectations." (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 2.) Further, during the course of her twenty years of employment with the Clerk's office, plaintiff never received an employment review that was "unsatisfactory" and was always either "meet[ing]" or "exceed[ing]" expectations. (Id.)

2. The Formation of a Union

In the spring of 2008, Coffelt was aware that Coen and other employees supported the formation of a labor union within the Clerk's office. (Id. ¶ 15.) On October 8, 2008, plaintiff spoke in favor of the union at a public meeting. (Id. ¶ 14.) All of the individuals who supported the formation of the union are still employed with the Clerk's office, with the exception of Pat Schueneman, who has since retired. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 53.)

3. The 2008 Election

The Clerk's office may choose to adopt some or all of the policies set forth in the Lake County Employee Policies and Procedures Manual ("Employee Manual"). (Id. ¶ 7.) Although there was a policy in the Employee Manual restricting political activities at work, there was no written policy at Coffelt's office, and no indication that she adopted the policy in the Employee Manual. (Id. ¶ 9; Def.'s Ex. B, Coffelt Dep. 118:8-119:5, Mar. 23, 2010.) Instead, every four years before the primary election, Coffelt verbally told her employees that politicking was not to be done in the office. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 8.) However, Coen states, and Coffelt denies, that Coffelt herself engaged in politicking in the office by distributing nominating petition signature sheets to Coen and a co-worker. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 37.) It is undisputed that Coen and a co-worker signed Coffelt's nominating petition at work. (Id.)

In the spring of 2008, Coffelt became aware that Coen supported Coffelt's opponent, Cynthia Haran. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 37-39.) On October 15, 2008 and every day thereafter, defendant drove by plaintiff's house and saw a campaign sign for Cynthia Haran in plaintiff's yard. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 17.) Coffelt was also aware that several other employees of the Clerk's office supported Haran in the 2008 election, including Margie Kobus, Jane Lukasic, Eileen Farrell and Richard Worth. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 38-39.) All of these employees, except Coen, are still employed by the Clerk's office. (Id. ¶ 40.) Defendant Coffelt admits that she felt disappointment and probably some anger and disbelief that her employees were supporting her political opponent. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 18.)

Coffelt testified that, before plaintiff was terminated, employees of the Clerk's office informed her that plaintiff was always saying negative things about her. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 28.) Jody Fields Lobrillo, an employee that worked near plaintiff and who supported Coffelt's re-election, told Coffelt that plaintiff talked about Coffelt in a negative way and that plaintiff was upsetting the office. (Id. ¶ 26; see Coffelt's Dep. 112 (stating that Lobrillo provided volunteer work for Coffelt's campaign).) She also told Coffelt that plaintiff made political statements against Coffelt to customers of the Clerk's office. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 46.) For instance, plaintiff Coen said "Go, Cindy" to two private attorneys while at the counter of the Clerk's office, indicating her support for Cynthia Haran. (Id. ¶ 47.) Coffelt testified that two or three attorneys whose names she could not remember told her that plaintiff had made comments to them at the Clerk's office regarding her support for Cynthia Haran. (Id. ¶ 48.) Plaintiff admits to having been more outspoken than others in the office in her support for Cynthia Haran and the formation of the union. (Id. ¶ 49.) Coffelt never documented or caused anyone else to document any of plaintiff's negative statements about Coffelt. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶34.)

Additionally, during the summer of 2008, a Federal Express ("FedEx") employee told Kari McHugh, who is Coffelt's niece and an employee of the Clerk's office, that plaintiff said, "Honorable, my ass" when she gave plaintiff a package for the Clerk's office. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 67.) McHugh told defendant about the comment before she terminated plaintiff. (Id.) Defendant did not take any action or put anything in plaintiff's personnel file regarding this incident. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 31.) Overall, defendant testified that plaintiff's attitude deteriorated to the point that she would not look defendant in the eye, would not talk to defendant and, generally, defendant thought that plaintiff's behavior made other employees in the office uncomfortable. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 26-27.) Coffelt admits, however, that she did not know that plaintiff made others in the office uncomfortable until after plaintiff was terminated. (Def.'s Ex. B, Coffelt Dep. 135.)

The only other employee that defendant knew had engaged in political conversations with customers of the Clerk's office was Margie Kobus. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) ¶ 41.) Defendant was aware of one instance in which Kobus, while working at the customer counter, told a former Lake County Public Guardian that she was supporting Cynthia Haran. (Id. ¶ 42.) The Chief Circuit Court Judge for Lake County, Judge Booras, a personal friend of Kobus', urged Coffelt not to terminate Kobus because, according to Coffelt, "[Judge Booras] knew Margie was working against me and he knew I was upset with her for it." (Pl.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 20; Def.'s Ex. B, Coffelt Dep. 96:5-7.) After the election in November 2008, defendant placed Kobus on a verbal probationary period for the single instance of politicking at work in violation of the Lake County policy restricting political activities at work. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 43.) Additionally, defendant asked Kobus for an apology for campaigning on Haran's behalf. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 23; Def.'s Ex. B, Coffelt Dep. 98-99.)

4. The FedEx Incident

Part of Coen's responsibilities was handling the mail, including FedEx packages, which were placed on a public counter for the FedEx person to pick up. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 30.) In April 2008, Timothy E. Deadrick, who is Coffelt's brother, campaign treasurer, and an employee of the Clerk's office, put a package containing a $300,000.00 check on the counter for overnight FedEx delivery to an attorney in Chicago. (Id. ¶ 29; Coffelt Dep. 111-12 (stating that Deadrick had been treasurer of Coffelt's campaign for five years); Def.'s Ex. O, Freidrich Decl. ¶ 8 May 17, 2010.) A day or two later, the attorney to whom the check had been sent called to inquire about the check, at which time it was discovered that the package had not been picked up. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 6.) The package could not be located, and a new check had to be prepared and sent to the attorney. (Id. ¶ 33.) Plaintiff ultimately found the original package containing the check, but not until after the replacement had already been sent. (Id. ¶ 34.) Deadrick told defendant about the incident. (Id. ¶ 35.) Because of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance and ...

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