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Eunice Magnus v. St. Mark United Methodist Church

November 10, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber


Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on the Plaintiff's sole remaining claim. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants Defendant's motion.


St. Mark United Methodist Church (hereinafter, "Church" or "Defendant") hired Plaintiff Eunice Magnus ("Magnus") for the first time as a secretary in 1997-98, and then again as a night and weekend receptionist when Church activities increased in 2006. Within a week of re-hiring her, Rev. Jon McCoy ("McCoy") learned that Magnus' daughter has certain mental disabilities. In February 2008, McCoy offered Magnus a full-time receptionist position with more responsibilities. In that role she worked only Monday -- Friday. She was an at-will employee.

At the time, Magnus' daughter LaDonna lived in residential care facilities. Magnus evidently understood that she could only take LaDonna home to visit on weekends. The parties disagree as to whether she could have made alternate arrangements. When Magnus worked nights and weekends in 2006, her son looked after LaDonna; he was no longer available to do so by mid-2008.

There was at least one other full-time receptionist, Nancy Branker ("Branker"), who worked every weekend. (The Church claims it could only afford the two; Magnus disagrees, noting that they tried to hire a part-time receptionist during her full-time tenure.) In mid-2008, Branker sought to adjust the schedule and have some weekends off. The parties dispute whether a weekend receptionist was necessary and whether Branker asked Magnus to work some weekends. It is undisputed, though, that McCoy and Julian Valentine ("Valentine"), a member of the Church Personnel Committee, asked Magnus to work some weekend days. Magnus repeatedly refused.

Defendant claims that it suggested several different rotating schedules. Magnus reports only being told that she must work weekends in addition to her regular schedule - which she contends is illegal under state and federal law. Defendant claims that Magnus' obligations to her daughter and her catering business led her to refuse; Magnus asserts that she has no such business and refused solely to care for LaDonna. She felt initially that her refusal jeopardized her job, but when it was not mentioned for several months, she thought things had blown over.

Defendant proffers a November 3, 2008 memorandum identifying several issues with Magnus' work performance. Around that time, Branker had been on sick leave for several weeks, so Magnus worked alone. McCoy discussed the memo with Magnus, and claims that this discussion was but one part of an ongoing conversation about her shortcomings. Magnus contends that this is the only reprimand she ever received. Magnus offers a list of people that she claims praised her during her tenure, including McCoy and several parishioners.

Magnus received a five percent raise in January 2009, she claims for "excellent job performance." She reports being told that she would receive a raise within six months of working full-time, and that subsequent raises would be merit-based. The January 2009 raise was the only one she received. McCoy testified in deposition that all employees except new, part-time hires received a five percent cost-of-living raise, regardless of merit.

In late 2008 and early 2009, the Church's Employee Relations Committee evidently believed that the situation was deteriorating and that Magnus refused to make needed "adjustments." Defendant claims that the Committee decided to fire her over the weekend of January 24, 2009. It points to a Committee e-mail requesting a meeting on January 28, 2009 at 9:00 a.m. to discuss the "Magnus issue." Defendant claims that the meeting was to discuss how to best fire her. Magnus has no personal knowledge of who decided to fire her or when.

On January 27, 2009, LaDonna had a difficult episode, and Magnus arrived at work one hour late. She claims that she notified a co-worker of the delay. She says that once she arrived, she talked to McCoy and that he approved her offer to come in early the next day to make up the time. However, when she arrived at 12:00 Noon on January 28, 2009, she received a termination letter, which cited her "continued poor performance" as the reason for dismissal. Defendant's pleadings and proffered evidence make it clear that her unwillingness to work weekends was a substantial factor in the decision. Magnus appears to claim that poor performance is a pretext, and that she was actually fired for arriving late on January 27 and for her inability to work weekends due to LaDonna.

Magnus protested her dismissal in letters to Church authorities and eventually to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC").


A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate if the movant "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a).

A dispute is "genuine" if the evidence would permit a reasonable fact finder to find for the non-moving party, and material if it may affect the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Courts do not evaluate credibility or determine facts on summary judgment; they decide only whether there is enough evidence to send a case to a jury. Id. at 249. If the movant meets its burden, the non-movant must present facts showing a genuine dispute to avoid summary judgment. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323--24 (1986).

The Court construes all facts in favor of the non-moving party. Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 S.Ct. 2658, 2677 (2009). It may draw inferences from the evidence, but need not draw every conceivable inference. McDonald v. Vill. of Winnetka, 371 F.3d 992, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). A mere scintilla of evidence is insufficient; "[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial." Ricci, 129 S.Ct. at 2677 (citation omitted).

Because employment discrimination cases turn on issues of intent and credibility, they receive "special scrutiny" on summary judgment. Krchnavy v. Limagrain Genetics Corp., 294 F.3d 871, 875 (7th Cir. 2002). However, employment discrimination cases are amenable to summary judgment if there is not enough evidence to show the alleged discriminatory motive. Riley v. Orthogenic School, No. 99 C 6057, 2001 WL 1345950, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 30, 2001).

B. ADA Association Discrimination

The sole remaining count in this case alleges that the Church discriminated against Magnus based on her affiliation with LaDonna. The Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA") prohibits covered employers from "excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because" he or she has a relationship with a disabled person. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4). See also 29 C.F.R. § 1630.8. "Qualified individual" in § 12112(b)(4) does not mean the same thing as in the rest of the statute, where it means a person with a disability. See Larimer v. Int'l Bus. Mach. Co., 370 F.3d 698, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). Instead, it simply means qualified to do one's job and able to meet an employer's expectations. Id. at 700, 702.

Section 12112(b)(4) was enacted to stop employers from refusing to hire a qualified person out of fear that she will, for example, miss work to care for a disabled child. See Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp., 651 F.3d 482, 486 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 101--485, pt. 2, at 61--62 (1990)). However, the legislative history specifies that firing an employee who violates "a neutral employer policy concerning attendance or tardiness," even to care for a disabled person, does not violate the ADA. Id. at 486. That is, there is no obligation to reasonably accommodate a nondisabled employee. Larimer, 370 F.3d at 700. See also 29 C.F.R. app. pt. 1630 (an employee is not entitled to modified work schedule to allow them to care for a disabled family member).

There are three types of association discrimination claims: where (1) an employer tries to dodge the expense of treating an employee's disabled associate; (2) an employer fears that its employee has or will catch the disabling condition; and (3) an employee is distracted by the disability. Dewitt v. Proctor Hosp., 517 F.3d 944, 947--48(7th Cir. 2008). Magnus brings a distraction claim, alleging that she was "somewhat inattentive" at work due to LaDonna's disability, "yet not so inattentive that to perform to [her] ...

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