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Eddie Burnell, Jr v. Gatesrubbercompany

July 27, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division. No. 08 C 50192-Frederick J. Kapala, Judge.

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


Before KANNE, ROVNER, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

When Eddie Burnell, Jr., received a written warning from his supervisor for failing to complete a task, he went straight to management to complain. To his surprise, the complaint triggered a series of events that led to his discharge from Gates Rubber Company. Burnell then sued his former employer in federal district court, complaining of discrim- ination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, as well as discriminatory discharge, discriminatory employment actions, and retaliatory discharge, all in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. The district court granted summary judgment on all counts, and Burnell now appeals that order as to his discriminatory and retaliatory discharge claims and his § 1981 claim. We affirm the grant of summary judgment as to his discriminatory discharge and § 1981 claims, but reverse as to his retaliatory discharge claim.


Burnell, an African American, claims race motivated his December 20, 2006, discharge. As evidence for this claim, Burnell alleges several instances of past discrimination-mainly during his first stint in Gates Rubber's tool room, from 1993 to 1996. Before describing the events leading to Burnell's discharge, we summarize these allegations.

Many of Burnell's allegations involve white employee Joe Payne, who was rumored to have said that he would rather retire than work with Burnell. Near the beginning of Burnell's time in the tool room, Payne tricked Burnell into being sprayed with a hose. Payne later told Burnell that Burnell would never be allowed to run certain tool room equipment. Burnell alleges a few other instances of racial discrimination during his first stint in the tool room. He claims that employees were trained disproportionately by members of the same race and that other (white) tool room employees received outside training that he did not receive. Finally, Burnell claims that white employees improperly gave him failing grades on a test to earn a promotion.

At some point, Burnell complained about Payne to plant manager Shahram Totonchian and employee relations specialist Jill Carvalho. Totonchian talked to Burnell's supervisor about Payne, but Burnell was not satisfied with the results. Totonchian also laughed about Payne's threat to retire if he had to work with Burnell. Payne eventually retired, but he was hired back as a temporary employee. Burnell rejoined the tool room in 2003.

On December 18, 2006, supervisor Todd Gates*fn1 asked Burnell to "turn down" six tools. According to*fn2 Burnell, Gates prefaced the request with "if you have time." When Gates returned the next morning, he saw the tools in the same place he had left them, and the tools had not been turned down. Gates reported Burnell's apparent insubordination to maintenance man-ager Doug Krause. When Burnell arrived at work, Gates issued him a written warning. Burnell explained to Gates that he had not had time to turn down the tools, and he did not accept the written warning.

Instead, Burnell left to complain to Totonchian about the warning. At some point, Krause joined the conversation. Burnell told Totonchian that Gates had left him a note asking him to turn down the tools if he had time. Burnell then claimed he had not had time to turn them down, so the written warning was inappropriate. Later in the conversation, Burnell explained he had felt he could not turn down the tools safely.

After meeting with Burnell, Totonchian and Krause spoke briefly with Gates. Gates reported that he had given Burnell an oral instruction to turn down the tools and that the instruction did not include any suggestion Burnell should do the work only if he had time. He also reported that Payne had successfully turned down the tools upon request.

Totonchian and Krause then met once more with Burnell. Burnell began the meeting by asking for a third party witness, which Totonchian and Krause refused. Though Burnell repeated that he did not turn down the tools because he could not do it safely, he did not describe the steps he had taken to try to turn down the tools safely. At some point, according to Burnell, Totonchian accused Burnell of "playing the race card" and told him to find another job if he did not enjoy working at Gates Rubber. Krause dismissed Burnell from work for the day and instructed him to return the next day with a commitment letter, which is a common disciplinary device at Gates Rubber.

Totonchian was demonstrably upset, and he wanted to fire Burnell for insubordination and lying. Carvalho convinced Totonchian not to fire Burnell if Burnell would sign a commitment letter. Carvalho then called Burnell, and Burnell claims she approved a commitment letter that he had drafted. But when Burnell met the next day with Krause and human resources manager Cathy Waters, they demanded Burnell sign a different commitment letter. The new letter implied that Burnell had been insubordinate and dishonest. When Burnell repeatedly refused to sign the new letter, Krause and Waters told him he would be fired if he did not sign. Burnell refused again and was fired.

Burnell sued Gates Rubber in federal district court, claiming discriminatory discharge, other discriminatory employment acts, and retaliatory discharge-all in violation of Title VII-and discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. ยง 1981. The district court granted Gates Rubber's motion for summary judgment as to all of Burnell's claims. Burnell then appealed the grant of summary judgment as to ...

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