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Ehnae Northington v. H & M International

December 29, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blanche M. Manning United States District Court Judge


H & M International Transportation, Inc. operates railroad and trucking terminal facilities throughout the United States. H & M terminated Ehnae Northington, who was employed at its Northlake, Illinois, facility after she did not submit a urine sample for drug testing. Ms. Northington contends that the drug test was a set-up to retaliate against her based on state court criminal assault and battery charges she filed against H & M employee Shequita Sims, who attacked Ms. Northington outside the workplace because she was upset about Ms. Northington's relationship with her former boyfriend and the father of her child, who also worked at H & M.*fn1

The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment are before this court. For the following reasons, Ms. Northington's motion is denied and H & M's motion is granted.

I. Background

A. H & M's Motion to Strike

Before the court can summarize the relevant facts, it must consider H & M's contention that unspecified portions of Ms. Northington's statements of fact and the supporting exhibits are improper under Local Rule 56.1. That rule requires a party seeking summary judgment to file a statement of material facts, submitted as short numbered paragraphs containing citations to admissible evidence. Loc. R. 56.1(a). The opposing party must either admit or deny each paragraph and cite to its own supporting evidence. Loc. R. 56(1)(b)(3)(A). Failure to adequately reference affidavits, the record, or other materials relied upon to support the party's denial may result in admission of the movant's facts to the extent supported by the record. See id.; Brasic v. Heinmann's Inc., 121 F.3d 281, 284 (7th Cir. 1997); Arrington v. La Rabida Children's Hosp., No. 06 C 5129, 2008 WL 5388717, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 22, 2008).

H & M does not list the allegedly unsupported facts. The court, however, agrees that many of Ms. Northington's facts do not cite to the record. See Dkt. 156-1 at ¶¶ 4, 5, 23-26, 31. As H & M correctly points out, the Seventh Circuit has held that "[j]udges are not like pigs, hunting for truffles buried in briefs." United States v. Dunkel, 927 F.2d 955, 956 (7th Cir. 1991). Thus, to the extent that Ms. Northington's facts are unsupported by citations to the record, the court will not consider them.

The court will also not consider conclusions of law (e.g., plaintiff's statement ¶ 34, which contains Ms. Northington's interpretation of an earlier court order in this case) or characterizations of testimony (e.g., ¶ 31, which states that a deponent testified truthfully). It further notes that it has considered the deposition transcripts themselves and not the excerpts provided by Ms. Northington, which are largely but not entirely correct. In addition, Ms. Northington appears to intend to rely on her own statement of facts as she did not respond to H & M's facts. Thus, to the extent that H & M's facts are supported by the record and are not addressed by evidence cited by Ms. Northington in her statement of facts, H & M's facts are deemed admitted.

H & M next contends that many of Ms. Northington's exhibits are inadmissible because they were not authenticated. Specifically, H & M challenges plaintiff's exhibits 4, 5A, 5B, 5C, 5E, 5G, 6-1, 6-2, 7, 8, 9, 11a, 11b, 12a, 12c, 13, 14-1, 14-2, 14-3, 14-4, 14-5, 14-6, 14-7, 14-8, 14-9, 14-10, 14-11, 14-12, 14-13, 14-14, 14-15, 15, 16a, 16b, 16c, 16d, 16e, 16f, 16g, 16h, 16i, and 16j.

! Exhibit 4 is an undated single-paragraph statement bearing four signatures. ! The next group of challenged documents relate to a union at H & M. Exhibit 5 is a multi-page Teamsters grievance form; 6-1 is Ms. Northington's Teamsters card; 6-2 appears to be a photocopied page with instructions about obtaining representation from the Union in the event of a disciplinary action; 8 is an authorization to deduct membership dues from Ms. Northington's wages, and 9 is an earnings statement with the union dues charge circled by an unspecified person. ! Plaintiff's exhibit 11-A is entitled "return to work/school verification." It appears to be a form from Advocate Health Center memorializing that a patient received treatment and bears the hand-written notation, "proof of doctors [sic] statements when my child had an asthma attack." Exhibit 11-B appears to be an electronically generated receipt showing that Niya Penny had a doctor's appointment on May 2, 2008. ! Exhibit 12 appears to consist of documents from a state court action against

Shequita Sims directing her to not contact Ms. Northington. ! Exhibit 13 is a job posting dated March 7, 2008 for a third shift programmer who can type at least 40 words per minute. The posting does not name the employer or provide contact information. ! Exhibit 14 appears to consist of a group of documents about unemployment benefits that reference Ms. Northington's refusal to retake a drug test. ! Exhibit 15 is a document signed by Ms. Northington that releases her medical records to H & M's attorneys. ! Exhibit 16 appears to be a group of documents relating to background checks made in connection with applications for different jobs after H&M terminated Ms. Northington.

Some of the challenged documents that can be identified using information in Ms. Northington's statements of fact and appear to be business records (i.e., plaintiff's exhibit 5, which ¶ 32 of Ms. Northington's facts identifies as a statement provided by Union Steward Wayne Herring). Others appear to be records from state court, or documents prepared or signed by Ms. Northington. Still others (e.g., the statement signed by four people and the job posting) are undated documents that clearly need foundation to be admissible. Be that as it may, the court will not parse through H & M's objections as they do not affect the disposition of the parties' motions for summary judgment and the facts necessary to resolve those motions are largely undisputed. With this in mind, the court turns to the relevant facts.

B. Facts

1. Relevant H & M Employees

In December of 2005, Ms. Northington, an African-American female in her late twenties, began working for H & M at its Northlake facility as a "lot check." A "lot check" keeps inventory of the H & M rail yard and collects tracking identification numbers from each container before it is transported to its next destination. According to Ms. Northington, an informal duty of the lot check employee was to bring lunch to other H & M co-workers who elected to work through their lunch breaks. Ms. Northington was employed by H & M until her discharge in May of 2008.

Bart Collins, a Caucasian male and the site's manager of operations, supervised Ms. Northington while she was employed at H & M. At the time, Mr. Collins was married to Tanga Hoskins-Collins, the site's assistant manager. Ms. Hoskins-Collins is an African-American female and has a daughter, Sequila Sims, who also is African-American and was employed at H & M as a Global II Programmer.

When Ms. Northington began her lot check job at H & M, Ms. Sims was romantically involved with Terrell Maghett, another H & M employee who is an African-American male. Ms. Sims and Mr. Maghett have one child together, Terrell Maghett, Jr. Mr. Maghett's father, Wayne Herring, was a Union Steward and spotter at H & M. Ms. Northington's mother, Linda Hearn, is an African-American female who also worked at H & M at its Northlake facility, where she sat near Ms. Sims during the same shift.

Mary Hayes is the Vice President of Human Resources at H & M. Margaret Snook is a Safety Manager at H & M, Charles Connors is the President and Chief Operating Officer, Kevin Harrington is H & M's Senior Vice President of Rail Operations, and Timothy Newcomb is H & M's Director of Operations.

2. Ms. Northington's Relationship with Mr. Maghett and Ms. Sims

Ms. Northington met Mr. Maghett in 2006 and in March of 2007, the two began dating. At no point during her employment at H & M did either Ms. Sims or Mr. Maghett supervise Ms. Northington or exercise any position of authority over her.

Due to her prior ties to Mr. Maghett, Ms. Sims was not pleased by the budding relationship between her co-workers. She became suspicious of and verbally abusive towards Ms. Northington in person and on the phone, informing her, for example, that Mr. Maghett was "her man" and that she "[didn't] want [Ms. Northington] to go get him lunch." Northington Dep. at 103-04. Ms. Northington, however, was undeterred and continued to interact with Mr. Maghett even after Ms. Sims said that "she was going to bust [Ms. Northington's] head . if [she didn't] leave him alone or stop talking to him or stop going to get him lunch." Id. at 114.

Mr. Collins, Ms. Northington's supervisor, learned of the tension between the two women, met with them, and advised them to keep their personal disagreements outside of work. He also told them that fighting at work would lead to their termination. Ms. Sims nevertheless remained distressed about Ms. Northington's role in what was, at this point, her failed relationship with Mr. Maghett. Ms. Sims did not hide her feelings, calling Ms. Northington a "slut," "bitch," "whore," and other unflattering epithets. Id. at 104, 106-08.

It is undisputed that tensions ran high at the H & M yard due to the love triangle. Ms. Sims ultimately came to the job site on one of her days off to once again confront Ms. Northington in person. After seeing Ms. Sims circle the parking lot, H & M sent Ms. Northington home early with pay to avert what appeared to be an imminent unpleasant interaction. Nevertheless, the two women met face to face by the lineup trailer and Ms. Sims again threatened Ms. Northington with physical harm if she did not "leave [Mr. Maghett] alone." Id. at 119. Ms. Northington responded by accusing Ms. Sims of cheating on Mr. Maghett back when Mr. Maghett and Ms. Sims were a couple.

Ms. Northington complained to Mr. Collins that the harassment was continuing and told him he needed "to do something about it." Id. at 130. She also described Ms. Sims' actions as "personal" and noted "you can't tell me it's not." Id. at 138. She later met with both the Vice President and eventually the President of H & M to discuss her problems with Ms. Sims and Ms. Hoskins-Collins (Ms. Sims' mother, who as noted above was married to Mr. Collins). According to Ms. Northington, Ms. Hoskins-Collins had also begun to harass her by enforcing rules more strictly where Ms. Northington was concerned due to her daughter's unhappiness about the situation with Mr. Maghett.

Ms. Northington did not tell any H & M employee that Ms. Sims' hostile behavior was premised upon her own race or gender. Instead, she expressed that it was unfair to allow the situation to continue because she could not defend herself since doing so would lead to disciplinary action. Id. at 136. She later testified that she told Mr. Collins that "I don't know why this girl's got a problem with me." Id. at 134. Despite ample evidence -- including Ms. Northington's own testimony -- indicating that Mr. Collins was aware that Ms. Sims blamed the demise of her relationship with Mr. Maghett on Ms. Northington, Ms. Northington was upset because she thought Mr. Collins did not care about why Ms. Sims was harassing her. Id. at 137. Ms. Northington, however, did not tell Mr. Collins why Ms. Sims was harassing her, because "how would [she] tell him when [she] didn't know." Id.

On June 18, 2007, Ms. Northington sent a fax to Ms. Hayes (H & M's Vice President of Human Resources) alleging that Ms. Sims and Ms. Hoskins-Collins were harassing her. At the time she sent the fax, she had "no idea" why Ms. Sims and Ms. Hoskins-Collins did not like her, although "[she] could give . . . twelve reasons" why they did not like her, so one would "have to ask them." Id. at 158. Ms. Northington also believed that it was "no secret" why Ms. Hoskins-Collins did not like her. Id. at 159.

After Ms. Hayes received the fax, Mr. Newcomb (H & M's Director of Operations) came to the worksite and held a meeting where employees expressed concerns about the management style of Mr. Collins and Ms. Hoskins-Collins. During and after the meeting, Ms. Northington told Mr. Newcomb that she wanted a raise and had been passed over for a promotion, forced to drive an unsafe truck, and been the victim of harassment by Ms. Sims and Ms. Hoskins-Collins. Ms. Northington also had a phone conversation with Mr. Connors (H & M's President and Chief Operating Officer) and told him that she was being harassed by Ms. Sims and Ms. Hoskins-Collins. Ms. Northington did not tell Mr. Newcomb or Mr. Connors that the harassment was due to her race or gender.

Mr. Connors conducted an investigation into Ms. Sims' behavior and the complaints about Mr. Collins and Ms. Hoskins-Collins. He then called Ms. Northington and told her that "things would get better." Id. at 193. During this call, Ms. Northington did not tell Mr. Connors why she thought she was being harassed because she "actually [didn't] know," and that she "[couldn't] tell somebody why somebody harassing [her]." Id. at 195.

Ms. Northington's mother, Linda Hearn, is an African-American female who also worked at H & M in Northlake and sat near Ms. Sims during the same shift. Ms. Hearn testified that Ms. Sims would "talk nasty" (i.e., "condescending") to her and all of the lot checks and groundsmen. Hearn Dep. at 54, 59 & 62. Ms. Hearn and other H & M employees complained to Mr. Collins about Ms. Sims to no avail. She did not approve of what she characterized as Mr. Collins' bossy management style where he "pretty much just gave orders" and felt that Mr. Collins "just disliked everybody period" regardless of their gender. Id. at 63-64, 78.

3. Criminal Assault and Battery Charges Against Ms. Sims

On December 8, 2007, Ms. Northington and Mr. Maghett left the workplace together in Ms. Northington's car. Ms. Sims, still upset by Ms. Northington's interactions with Mr. Maghett, followed the pair to a gas station, "snatched [Ms. Northington's] door open" and struck her several times in the face. Id. at 182. Following this incident, Ms. Northington filed a police report that resulted in a criminal assault and battery charge against Ms. Sims.

Ms. Northington testified at her deposition that she did not know why Ms. Sims hit her, but that it was obvious that Ms. Sims wanted to see harm done to her. Id. at 183. She then clarified that Ms. Sims "did it because she could, because nobody was going to do nothing to discipline her about anything, so she figured she could do whatever she wanted to do and nothing was going to happen, which nothing happened. That's why she kept doing it." Id. at 184.

A Union steward told Mr. Collins about the gas station altercation started by Ms. Sims. Mr. Collins stated that he would terminate Ms. Sims if any evidence indicated that the fight took place on H & M's property. Ms. Northington did not discuss the incident with Mr. Collins.

Ms. Sims pleaded guilty to battery in the Circuit Court of Cook County, which issued an order prohibiting Ms. Sims from having any contact with Ms. Northington. Ms. Northington gave a copy of the order to the Union. According to Ms. Northington, the issues with Ms. Sims ...

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