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Nancy Mason v. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

November 9, 2011

NANCY MASON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael P. McCUSKEY Chief U.S. District Judge

E-FILED

Wednesday, 09 November, 2011 12:17:54 PM Clerk, U.S. District Court, ILCD

OPINION

This case is before the court for ruling on the Motion for Summary Judgment (#14) filed by the Defendant, Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. This court has carefully reviewed the arguments of the parties and the documents filed by the parties. Following this careful and thorough review, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (#14) is DENIED.

FACTS*fn1

I. EMPLOYMENT BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Nancy Mason, is a female and was born on May 6, 1953.*fn2 Plaintiff was employed at the University of Illinois in various capacities from 1981 to August 15, 2011, including as a firefighter, EMT, and Program Director of Hazardous Materials and Terrorism for the Illinois Fire Service Institute ("IFSI"). In 1997, Richard Jaehne ("Jaehne") was hired to lead IFSI, a position he currently maintains. Jaehne's official title at IFSI is Director, and in that role he is ultimately responsible for hiring, promotions and other personnel decisions at IFSI. At the time Jaehne arrived at IFSI, both the Plaintiff and Dave Clark ("Clark") worked at IFSI and held the title of Fire Education Specialists. At some point after Jaehne's arrival, Clark was promoted to the position of Deputy Director at IFSI, a position which had a supervisory role over Plaintiff. Jaehne also hired John "Mac" McCastland ("McCastland") as an Assistant Director, sometime prior to 2005. In 2005, McCastland was promoted to the position of Associate Director at IFSI.*fn3

Prior to the demotions that are at issue in this case, Plaintiff's primary responsibility as Program Director was to manage the Hazardous Materials and Terrorism programs, in addition to other related responsibilities. Plaintiff held these positions for a period of time, however it appears that she received these roles at IFSI during Jaehne's tenure. During Plaintiff's time as Program Director, she had a staff that worked for her to assist her in completing her administrative responsibilities. In either late 2004 or early 2005, while Plaintiff was responsible for these programs, she requested additional help. In response to that request, Plaintiff was appointed chairperson of a search committee with the purpose of finding someone to fill her request for additional help. The committee recommended that Chris Downey ("Downey") be hired for the position. The stated role for Downey's position was to become trained in Plaintiff's area of expertise-namely the Hazardous Materials program-with the goal that he would eventually take on Plaintiff's role if his development in the position was successful.*fn4 At the time he was hired, which was in April 2005, he was approximately thirty years old and had previously worked for four years as a part-time volunteer fireman at the Hickory Point Fire Department; however he had no prior experience working in a university setting. After Downey was hired, he reported directly to Clark, which allegedly came as a surprise to the Plaintiff.

II. ALLEGED ADVERSE EMPLOYMENT ACTIONS

On August 9, 2005, Plaintiff received feedback from Jaehne regarding her job performance for the preceding year in her yearly Academic Professional Review. Jaehne complemented Plaintiff in the review on her development of the Hazardous Materials program and on her ability to generate ideas. However, Jaehne criticized her performance with regards to three areas: (1) the compatibility of the Hazardous Materials program with the other programs at IFSI; (2) the need to re-focus her efforts on program development and quality control and connectivity to the Office of Domestic Preparedness ("O.D.P.") guidelines; and (3) the need to reduce personality conflicts and become a better part of the team.*fn5 At about the same time Plaintiff received this performance evaluation, Plaintiff received a letter from Jaehne adjusting and increasing her salary*fn6 and thanking her for her services as follows: "Your performance has clearly demonstrated significant merit. . . . I want to thank you for your numerous important contributions to the Institute . . . You have truly contributed to make a difference."

In her role as the Program Director for Hazardous Materials, Plaintiff was responsible, in part, for developing curriculum that met the requirements of the United States Department of Homeland Security. In October 2005, portions of the curriculum that Plaintiff was responsible for-namely the course titled "SWR: Hazardous Materials Operations"-failed to meet the standards for state and local training programs.

At some point in the months preceding December 2005, Jaehne, in his monthly meetings with the Executive team-which included Clark, McCastland, Marcia Miller, and Terry Hopper-discussed the possibility of removing Plaintiff from her Program Director roles. Thereafter, in December 2005, Jaehne advised the Plaintiff that she was being relieved of her title as Program Director of Hazardous Materials and Terrorism, apparently explaining that the reason for this change was his lack of trust in Plaintiff and his dissatisfaction with her management of the programs. At this meeting, Plaintiff was also informed that her replacement as Program Director would be Downey, who had recently been hired to assist the Plaintiff. Although the exact timing is not clear from the parties filings, Plaintiff apparently continued, if not in title, at least in partial responsibility, for the Hazardous Materials and Terrorism Programs until March 2006, when those responsibilities, along with the vast majority of her previous responsibilities, were formally taken away. After Downey took over the role of Program Director of Hazardous Materials, he was not initially certified to sign student certificates for all of the programs that he now managed. Therefore, Plaintiff, even after her removal from her role as Program Director, was needed to continue signing student certificates for various programs.

At the time of her reassignment in March, Plaintiff was put in charge of curriculum development (which was a leading priority for IFSI), her sole responsibility at this point. Specifically, Plaintiff agreed to complete portions of the Hazardous Materials curriculum by May 31, 2006, for resubmission of the curriculum to the Department of Homeland Security Grants & Training. Plaintiff explains that she believed that this assignment to develop the weapons of mass destruction curriculum had been originally assigned to Brian Brauer ("Brauer") in the Spring of 2004. Plaintiff explains that this project was reassigned to her because it was not completed by Brauer, who was later promoted to Assistant Director in spite of this alleged failure. Plaintiff had a clear deadline to complete this project by May 31, 2006. However, Plaintiff, allegedly due to her brief hospitalization, was unable to complete at least one section of this curriculum and turned it in four days late. Jaehne considered this failure to fully complete the assigned curriculum to be a performance failure.

In July 2006, Plaintiff was moved into a smaller office at IFSI to allow McCastland to utilize her office. Also, in July, Plaintiff met with Dr. McCoy, the head of the Department, Jaehne and Clark to discuss the allegations that Plaintiff was not adequately performing her job. After a brief meeting, Jaehne and Clark left the meeting and Dr. McCoy continued to have a meeting individually with Plaintiff. According to the Plaintiff, during this private meeting with Dr. McCoy, Plaintiff was offered the opportunity to leave her position at IFSI and work for another department at the University of Illinois if she agreed not to file a grievance relating to her demotion at IFSI. Plaintiff agreed, and as a result, in August 2006, Plaintiff accepted the position of Grant Development Specialist for the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation, Police Training Institute, and IFSI.

After Plaintiff's reassignment to the Institute of Aviation, in November 2006, there was an email exchange between Lian Ruan, the head librarian at IFSI, and the Plaintiff regarding materials that were either missing or on "permanent" loan to Plaintiff from the library. Plaintiff was offended by what she believed was an accusation that she deliberately kept books that belonged to IFSI. Additionally, during this same time period, Plaintiff believes that her office at the Institute of Aviation was "ransacked" by "people" from IFSI at the direction of Jaehne, although it is not clear what damages Plaintiff suffered, if any, beyond her personal belief that she was being discriminated against by Jaehne.

In her new role as a Grant Development Specialist, Plaintiff worked for Virginia Davis, a female, who was a personal friend of McCastland. Thereafter, in 2007, Plaintiff received a bad performance review by Davis for her work at the Institute of Aviation. This review gave Plaintiff thirty days to improve her performance or be terminated. Plaintiff complained about this review and thereafter it was removed from her personnel file. Thereafter, Plaintiff was removed from Davis' supervision.

III. COMPLAINTS OF DISCRIMINATION

Plaintiff alleges that she first met with an individual from the University of Illinois Academic Human Resources Office to inquire about her situation at IFSI in January 2006-explaining at this time that she believed she was being singled out because of her gender. Plaintiff scheduled this meeting at an area restaurant to avoid any appearance that she was attending such a meeting. Plaintiff had a follow-up meeting after this initial meeting in February 2006. Despite these two initial meetings to discuss her concerns of gender discrimination, Plaintiff decided not to file a grievance, allegedly out of fear of losing her job with IFSI. In March 2006, Plaintiff returned to the Academic Human Resources Office and for the first time explained that she now believed she was also being discriminated against based on her age. Plaintiff statement of undisputed facts does not indicate that there were any subsequent conversations with the Academic Human Resources Office after March. Also, Plaintiff's deposition testimony indicates that she never complained directly to any individual at IFSI of age or gender discrimination. Finally, Plaintiff acknowledged in her deposition that she never filed a grievance with the Academic Human Resources Office.

IV. ALLEGED GENDER AND AGE-RELATED COMMENTS*fn7

Plaintiff supports her allegations of gender discrimination solely on the basis of Associate Director McCastland's alleged inappropriate gender-related statements. Specifically, Plaintiff's deposition testimony explains that McCastland's inappropriate statements were as follows:

He referred to [another employee] as a lesbian in a zoot suit at a staff meeting in January of 2005. He referred to the sexual harassment workshop that we had as being a joke, unprofessional joke. He referred to women on the telephone that were secretaries in a sexual manner, referring to them in endearing terms that are inappropriate like sweetie, darling.

Plaintiff does not allege any other individual discriminated on the basis of gender or made any gender inappropriate comments. With regards to the age discrimination claim, in her deposition the Plaintiff explained that there were two age-based discriminatory comments made by IFSI senior leadership.*fn8 Specifically, she explained Jaehne's comments to her in a meeting in June 2006, as follows:

He said that . . . not everybody gets to keep their job as they get older, that . . . just because it was getting easier didn't mean that I should keep the job that I had working the hazardous materials program and that he wanted me to take on a different responsibility from the hazardous materials program, and then he described the fact that he wanted me to go out and get money and work toward . . . bringing in additional funds for the Fire Service Institute for all the programs.

Plaintiff also testified in her deposition that Jaehne, and Clark, had made comments to her that age had been a factor in Jaehne's decision to remove her from the Program Director roles. Specifically, Plaintiff's deposition testimony is as follows:

It was the fact that during the meeting in March and the meeting in August Dave specifically--Dick talked about it, about my age being a factor in the decision to remove me from the program and not represent the Institute anymore, and then in August it was Dave Clark who made reference to the fact ...


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