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Warnether A. Muhammad v. Caterpillar

February 28, 2012

WARNETHER A. MUHAMMAD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CATERPILLAR, INC., DEFENDANT.



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

E-FILED

Tuesday, 28 February, 2012 08:40:18 AM

Clerk, U.S. District Court, ILCD

OPINION

This case is before the court for ruling on the Motion for Summary Judgment (#31) filed by the Defendant, Caterpillar, Inc, and the Motion to Strike (#35) filed by the Plaintiff, Warnether A. Muhammad. This court has carefully reviewed the arguments and supporting documents filed by the parties. Following this careful and thorough review, Plaintiff's Motion to Strike (#35) is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (#31) is GRANTED.

FACTS*fn1

I. EMPLOYMENT AT CATERPILLAR

Plaintiff has been, and currently is, an employee of Defendant Caterpillar, Inc. ("Caterpillar"). Plaintiff was initially hired by Caterpillar at its Decatur facility in August, 2005. During 2006, Plaintiff worked as an assembler on the wheel tractor scraper line-a role where Plaintiff worked as a member of a team to assemble portions of the wheel tractor scraper. Plaintiff's hours in 2006 were from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., including breaks at 5:00, 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. Other members of Plaintiff's team were Cindy Bond ("Bond"), Rob Boriff ("Boriff") and Val Bridges ("Bridges"), among others. Initially, Plaintiff did not have any issues with these particular employees and trusted them as members of his team.

At some point in July or August of 2006, Kipp Edwards ("Edwards") took over as Plaintiff's supervisor. The group manager for Plaintiff's shift was Boyd Johnson ("Johnson"). Melissa Schwoerer ("Schwoerer") was the labor relations representative responsible for investigating employee complaints and disciplinary problems at the Decatur facility. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (#14) solely involves issues that started after Edwards became Plaintiff's supervisor and continued through January 8, 2007 when Plaintiff was terminated from Caterpillar. Although Plaintiff was eventually rehired by Caterpillar, his subsequent employment with Caterpillar is not relevant to Plaintiff's claims in this case.

Caterpillar has a Prohibited Harassment Policy ("Policy") that prohibits harassment based upon sexual orientation, race, color and gender. Caterpillar regularly trains its workforce on this Policy and it is readily accessible to employees. This Policy was in place throughout the relevant time period in 2006 and 2007. Employees are made aware of the proper procedure for reporting conduct that violates the Policy. Plaintiff, upon his initial hire with Caterpillar, received and signed the Policy.

II. CO-WORKER HARASSMENT

A. Instances of Verbal Harassment

The first instance of alleged co-worker harassment occurred in May, 2006. Plaintiff reported to human resources that Smitty Dole ("Dole") called him a "black n----r" and could not understand how Plaintiff was able to obtain his job. After Plaintiff's complaint to human resources, Dole never made any further racial comments to Plaintiff.

At some point in July or early August, 2006, Plaintiff reported to his supervisor, Edwards, that he was having trouble with a co-worker, Mark Boem ("Boem"). Plaintiff reported that Boem called him a "black fag--t a--" because Boem believed Plaintiff had got Dole in trouble. Edwards told Plaintiff that he would take the complaint about Boem to human resources, which Edwards did. Although it is unclear what punishment Boem received, it is undisputed that Plaintiff never had any problems with Boem after Plaintiff's conversation with Edwards.

In September, 2006, Cynthia Bond ("Bond") made a statement to Plaintiff that she did not like her grandchildren because they were black. Additionally, Bond stated that she wished her daughter had dated a white man, not a black man. Plaintiff reported these comments to Edwards who then sent Bond and Plaintiff to human resources to discuss the statements. Later, in October 2006, after Plaintiff had been suspended for a brief period, Bond made a comment to Plaintiff that "his black butt should have stayed fired." Plaintiff did not report this comment to Edwards or human resources.

B. Harassment in form of Graffiti

In early August, 2006, Plaintiff was informed that his name was on the wall of the bathroom. Plaintiff viewed the graffiti which stated the following: (1) "[Plaintiff] has AIDS and [Plaintiff] is a fag, a know-it-all fag" and (2) "[Plaintiff] is a black n----r and [Plaintiff] should be killed." On August 11, 2006, Plaintiff reported this graffiti to Edwards, who immediately contacted NuAir (a third-party provider of painting services) to have the graffiti painted over. Edwards also reached out to Johnson and Schwoerer for guidance on how to deal with this situation. On August 14, 2006, the graffiti reappeared and Plaintiff reported it to Edwards. During Plaintiff's conversation with Edwards, in an apparent attempt to empathize with Plaintiff, Edwards stated that he also had graffiti about him on the wall. Plaintiff interpreted this statement to mean that Edwards did not care about the graffiti. Nevertheless, Edwards once again called NuAir to paint over the graffiti. After Plaintiff spoke with Edwards about the reappearance of the graffiti, Plaintiff also spoke with Johnson. Johnson looked at the graffiti and did confirm that there were statements about Plaintiff's sexual orientation, but did not see any racial graffiti.

On August 30, 2006, Edwards noticed that there was additional graffiti relating to the Plaintiff and therefore he emailed Diane Endrizzi ("Endrizzi") and employee relations manager John Huber ("Huber"), and copied superintendent Dave Korowicki ("Korowicki"). In this email, Edwards explained that although the graffiti had been painted over on three occasions already, and that he had addressed the graffiti in his shift start meetings, the graffiti continued to reappear. Edwards then asked for guidance as to how to ensure that the situation was dealt with properly. At this point, Huber recommended that Edwards speak to each employee in the building in a one-on-one meeting. Accepting this recommendation, Edwards, along with Korowicki and Johnson, spoke with every employee on the line and made it known that the graffiti would not be tolerated and that if anyone was caught, they would be immediately terminated. After these individual meetings were conducted, the graffiti never reappeared. No Caterpillar employee was ever found to be responsible for the graffiti, and the parties dispute the level of investigation that Defendant undertook to discover who was actually responsible for the graffiti.*fn2

III. PLAINTIFF'S FIRST SUSPENSION

On October 12*fn3 , 2006, Plaintiff was away from his work station using the restroom and looking at the job bid board*fn4 during work time. After Edwards discovered that Plaintiff was away from his work station, there was a confrontation between Edwards and Plaintiff. Edwards recorded his interpretation of the incident in an incident report. Although the facts relating to this incident are in dispute,*fn5 it is undisputed that Edwards gave Plaintiff an indefinite suspension for insubordination as a result of the incident and personally walked Plaintiff out of Defendant's plant.

At some point prior to October 2006, Plaintiff was asked to complete a survey regarding Edwards. In his survey response, Plaintiff included constructive criticism about Edwards. Plaintiff believes, based on later interaction with Edwards, that Edwards was angry with him for making these comments. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that Edwards was upset with him for speaking to Johnson about the graffiti. Plaintiff believes that this was the motivation for Edwards to retaliate against him by suspending him.

After the incident between Edwards and Plaintiff, Schwoerer, the labor relations representative, spoke with Edwards about the incident. Based on Defendant's internal protocol, Edwards did not possess the authority to determine the severity of discipline for any incidents of misconduct. Rather, Edwards was only able to suspend employees pending an investigation of the misconduct by Defendant's labor relations representatives. After this discussion with Schwoerer, Edwards had no further involvement in Plaintiff's discipline. Schwoerer discussed this incident with labor relations manager Hubert, and a determination was made on October 24, 2006, that a suspension for insubordination was appropriate. At some point prior to November 2, 2006, Plaintiff was contacted by Schwoerer who instructed him that he could return to work on November 2, 2006, which he did.

Plaintiff admits that he has never seen other Caterpillar employees: (1) refuse to do work when asked by a supervisor or (2) walk away from a supervisor while the supervisor was talking to them. Additionally, Plaintiff does not believe, and offers no evidence, that anyone at Caterpillar, other than Edwards, retaliated against him. Specifically, Plaintiff acknowledges that he does not believe that Schwoerer or Johnson had any discriminatory intent or views regarding the Plaintiff at any time.

IV. PLAINTIFF'S SECOND SUSPENSION

After Plaintiff returned to work on November 2, 2006, Plaintiff had difficulties with some of his co-workers.*fn6 Apparently, these co-workers did not want to work with the Plaintiff. Despite these issues, Plaintiff did not make any complaints to human resources. On November 15, 2006, after receiving complaints from numerous individuals, Edwards sent an email to Endrizzi indicating that three employees were having difficulties working with Plaintiff-specifically Bond, Boriff and Bridges. After receiving this email, Endrizzi sent an email to Hubert, ...


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