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Mary Woods v. Von Maur

August 24, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Virginia M. Kendall


Plaintiff Mary Woods sued her former employer, Von Maur, Inc. ("Von Maur"), a department store chain, alleging that Von Maur did not promote her because she is black, and ultimately terminated her because of her race and because she complained about racial profiling of members of her family while they shopped at Von Maur. Moving for summary judgment, Von Maur counters that it did not discriminate againstWoods, she was not qualified to be promoted to a buyer position, and that Von Maur properly fired her because she bought merchandise, returned it, and then bought it again after it was marked down, in violation of company policy. For the below reasons, Von Maur's motion is granted in part and denied in part. Woods' termination claim and retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 must proceed to trial, but summary judgment is proper on her failure to promote claim.*fn1


Woods worked part-time as a sales associate at the Von Maur department store in Glenview, Illinois from September 2003 until she was fired in July 2008. (Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 1-2, 4.) She filed charges of race discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a few months later. (Id. ¶ 19.) During that same period, she worked full-time at North Shore Hospital. (Id. ¶ 5.) Woods does not have a degree in fashion design, merchandising or business, and only worked as a retail buyer for 15 months in the early 1990s. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.) She never held a supervisory or executive position at Von Maur. (Id. ¶ 12.)

Between July 2005 to July 2008, Gwen Ivory was Woods' department manager. (Doc. 70, VM 56.1 Resp. ¶ 4.) At the time Woods was fired, Katie Tucker was Woods' floor manager. (Id. ¶ 4.) She reported to Elizabeth Jaggi*fn2 , the Glenview store manager, who in turn reported to Amy Rotert, the regional director of stores for the region that includes the Glenview store. (Id. ¶¶ 1-2.) While she worked at Von Maur, Woods' annual performance reviews stated that she was "meeting expectations" or that she "fully meets expectations." (Id. ¶ 8.) Woods' last review was similar, listing good reviews in areas concerning merchandise and customer relations, but also noting that she needed to improve her credit card account solicitation. (Id. ¶ 9.)

Though it is disputed whether a Von Maur employee needs to be a full-time employee to be eligible for promotion to buyer, it is Von Maur's practice that a current employee hold a full-time department manager position first before becoming a buyer, and Woods does not identify anyone who was promoted directly from part-time associate to buyer. (Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 12, 14-15.) Between 2008 and 2010, Von Maur promoted several black employees to buyer. (Id. ¶¶ 16-17.)

During Woods' employment, Von Maur had various policies concerning an employee's purchase of Von Maur merchandise, including: (1) a discount was available to the employee and her immediate family; (2) in certain instances an employee could have merchandise pricing matched to that of a competitor; (3) in certain instances employees could receive price adjustments for merchandise that has been marked down; (4) in certain instances an employee could have merchandise held for a period of time (though it was generally not allowed); and (5) employees could not ring up their own purchases or ring up purchases for family that qualified for the employee's discount. (VM 56.1 Resp. ¶ 10.) Woods received the employee manual, acknowledged that she understood the policies, and understood that violating the discount policy could lead to termination. (Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 28.) Though the parties dispute whether all the policies were equally important (see id.), they agree that the policies apply company-wide and are designed to prevent Von Maur from losing money. (VM 56.1 Resp. ¶ 11.)

Though Woods disputes whether they were actually violations of the employee purchase policy, Von Maur identified two series of transactions that were the basis of Woods' termination after an investigation by Tucker and Jaggi. (Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 32-33.) Woods admitted that she bought a blouse for $52, returned it a week or so later, and then re-purchased the same blouse for $19 after it had been marked down. (Id. ¶ 34.) Woods also admitted that she bought a sweater for $43, bought the same sweater after it had been marked down to $21, and then returned the first sweater for $43. (Id. ¶ 35.)The latter transaction is not prohibited by the Von Maur employee handbook. (Id. ¶ 38.)Von Maur told Woods it fired her based on violations of the employee price adjustment policy. (Id. ¶ 43.) Maria Cecilia David, a non-black employee at the Glenview store, violated the price adjustment policy after 11 months on the job but was not fired. (Id. ¶ 45.) Rimma Likeover, a white employee in Glenview, violated the price adjustment policy just six days after she was hired but was also not fired. (Id. ¶ 46.) Jaggi fired a number of other white, black and Asian employees for violations of the price adjustment policies or for returning worn merchandise. (Id. ¶¶ 49-50, 65-67, 68-69.)

While Jaggi was a human resources manager and Glenview's store manager, no employees came to her about issues of discrimination. (VM 56.1 Resp. ¶21.) Other than Woods' lawsuit, no Glenview employee ever filed a formal or informal complaint of discrimination or retaliation. (Id. ¶22.)


Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the Court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing the motion. See Bennington v. Caterpillar Inc., 275 F.3d 654, 658 (7th Cir. 2001); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). However, the Court may "limit its analysis of the facts on summary judgment to evidence that is properly identified and supported in the parties' [Local Rule 56.1] statement." Bordelon v. Chicago Sch. Reform Bd. of Tr., 233 F.3d 524, 529 (7th Cir. 2000). Where a proposed statement of fact is supported by the record and not adequately rebutted, the court will accept that statement as true for purposes of summary judgment. An adequate rebuttal requires a citation to specific support in the record; an unsubstantiated denial is not adequate. See Albiero v. City of Kankakee, 246 F.3d 927, 933 (7th Cir. 2001); Drake v. Minn. Mining & Mfg. Co., 134 F.3d 878, 887 (7th Cir. 1998) ("'Rule 56 demands something more specific than the bald assertion of the general truth of a particular matter[;] rather it requires affidavits that cite specific concrete facts establishing the existence of the truth of the matter asserted.'").

The same summary judgment standards apply in employment discrimination cases as in all other cases. Alexander v. Wisconsin Dept. of Health and Family Servs., 263 F.3d 673, 681 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing Wallace v. SMC Pneumatics, Inc., 103 F.3d 1394, 1396 (7th Cir. 1997)). However, intent and credibility frequently are critical issues in employment cases that in many instances are genuinely contestable and not appropriate for a court to decide on summary judgment. See id. Nevertheless, summary judgment in favor of the defendant is hardly unknown or, for that matter, rare in employment discrimination cases. Wallace, 103 F.3d at 1396.


Woods brings three claims against Von Maur: (1) race discrimination under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; (2) race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § ...

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