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Debra Holmes v. Tribune Direct Marketing

June 13, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge:


Debra Holmes has sued Tribune Direct Marketing, Inc. ("Tribune") under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She asserts claims for retaliation, race and national origin discrimination, and harassment.*fn1 Tribune has moved for summary judgment on all of Holmes's claims. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Tribune's motion in part and denies it in part.


Tribune is a Delaware corporation with operations in Northlake, Illinois. It offers printing and distribution services for direct-mail marketing campaigns. Holmes is an Illinois resident and a former Tribune employee. She is of African-American and Native American descent.

Holmes began working in Tribune's solo mail department in July 2004 as a production operator. She reported to production supervisor Larry Gresham, who reported to solo mail manager Ray Hoshell. As a production operator, Holmes was responsible for feeding documents into a printer, quality-checking the printing process, and sorting the printed documents into mail trays. Senior production operators then reviewed the production operators' work and measured their productivity. To keep track of her own progress, Holmes had a practice of initialing the printed materials that she handled.

On December 7, 2008, Holmes arrived to work late. According to Tribune, Holmes had no remaining time-off benefits as of that date. As a result, Gresham issued her an attendance violation notice on December 10. The notice stated that Holmes had used up all of her accrued time-off benefits and warned her that an additional violation of any company policy could lead to further disciplinary action, including termination. Holmes signed the notice, thereby acknowledging that she had discussed the violation with her supervisors.

Holmes filed a charge of racial and national origin discrimination with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission ("EEOC") on December 18, 2008. Holmes provided the following details in support of her charge: "During my employment, I have been subjected to different terms and conditions of employment, including but not limited to, denial of training. On December 10, 2008, I was disciplined for an infraction for which similarly situated non-Black, non-American employees are not disciplined. I believe I have been discriminated against because of my race, Black, and my national origin, American." First Am. Compl., Ex. C. Holmes continued working at Tribune at Tribune after filing the EEOC charge and occasionally took notes while working to document acts she perceived as discriminatory.

On January 21, 2009, Holmes was working when a senior production operator reported a production error to Gresham. According to the senior production operator, the error involved materials that originated at a printer operated by Holmes and a temporary worker. Gresham inspected the erroneously printed materials and, after recognizing the number sequence and Holmes's handwriting on the box, concluded that Holmes had run the printing job that caused the error. Later that day, he approached Holmes, told her about the error, and asked her to be more careful in the future. Holmes responded that she did not run the job that caused the error. She later reiterated this to Gresham during her break and also told him that she thought other employees were tampering with her work. Gresham testified that Holmes was indignant and argumentative during this conversation. Hoshell also testified that he overheard Holmes yelling at Gresham.

The next day, Holmes called Gresham and left him a voicemail message. She emphasized that she had been very careful about her work and reiterated her belief that other employees had tampered with her materials. She suggested that another employee handled the materials containing the error and said "[i]f you going to be playing dangerous games you better watch yourself." Holmes Dep., Ex. 13. Later that day, she left a second message for Gresham in which she stated that You as a supervisor need to think about what's going on in your department cause Larry I'm not playing. Like I said I'm not going to play any games. I come there, I do my job I mind my business and that's all I'm going to do. So, the little pointing fingers at me, you can rest assured I'm going to protect myself and right now I feel like I got to protect myself so Alex, Teresa Guzman and Lucy Moreno, hope they better watch out because they want to play these little, these little juvenile games, Debra Holmes is not playing the game. The only game I'm going to play is to do my job and do the best job I can do.

Holmes Dep., Ex. 14 (emphasis added).

Gresham retrieved Holmes's messages when he returned to work on January 25. He called Hoshell that day and told him that he believed Holmes's messages contained threats against her co-workers. Gresham also sent Hoshell an e-mail to document his receipt of Holmes's messages. In the e-mail, Gresham asked Hoshell for his "opinion of how to best manage Debra Holmes under the circumstances of her EEOC filing and in light of what may be construed as leaving threatening and harassing voice mail messages." Gresham Dep., Ex. 9. Hoshell testified that he told Gresham to keep Holmes working separately from the other employees and to save the messages so that Hoshell could listen to them when he returned to work the next day.

On January 26, Hoshell sent an e-mail to Tribune's human resource department to determine what the company should do in light of Holmes's messages. He stated that "I can't have her poisoning the entire crew because of her actions. She can be seen taking notes all day long. I'm not sure what the next step would be due to her formal complaints. This is getting totally out of hand." Hoshell Dep., Ex. 9. That afternoon, Gresham asked Holmes to come to his office. When she arrived, Hoshell and a security official were present. Hoshell told Holmes that he and Gresham had listened to her messages, felt that they were threatening, and had decided to terminate Holmes's employment.

Holmes filed a second charge with the EEOC on January 29, 2009. She indicated that her claims were for race discrimination, sex discrimination, and retaliation. She wrote that "[o]n December 18, 2008, I filed a charge of discrimination, 440-2009-01582. I was subsequently discharged. I believe I have been discriminated against because of my race, Black, sex, female and retaliated against for engaging in a protected activity." First Am. Compl., Ex. D. On May 26, 2009, the EEOC dismissed both of Holmes's charges and issued separate notices of right to sue. Holmes filed the present lawsuit on August 24, 2009.


On a motion for summary judgment, the Court "view[s] the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw[s] all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Trinity Homes LLC v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., 629 F.3d 653, 656 (7th Cir. 2010). Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In other words, a court may grant summary judgment "where the record taken as a whole could not ...

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