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Tiffany Bingham v. Premier Security Corporation

March 21, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Joan B. Gottschall


Defendant Premier has moved for summary judgment. While the case is close, the court concludes that summary judgment is inappropriate.

The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise indicated and are taken in large part from the defendant's Summary of the Facts in its Memorandum in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment.

Plaintiff Tiffany Bingham was employed as a private security officer for defendant Premier Security Corporation from May 2008 until January 2009. Plaintiff worked at Prudential Plaza in downtown Chicago, reporting to Assistant Director Victor Flanagan, who in turn reported to Director Randall Thomas.

On or about December 16, 2008, Bingham lodged a complaint of sexual harassment against Thomas and Flanagan with Premier's Human Resources representatives, Paula Hickey and Renee Brainerd-Doan. Bingham complained that shortly after she began working at Prudential Plaza, she began a consensual sexual relationship with Thomas. At the same time, she claimed, she was being sexually harassed by Flanagan. Bingham told Hickey and Brainerd- Doan that she complained to Thomas about Flanagan's conduct but Thomas refused to address the issue and told Bingham that if she complained to Human Resources, Human Resources would believe Thomas and Flanagan and plaintiff would get into trouble. Plaintiff told the Human Resources representatives that she had been trying to end the consensual relationship with Thomas, but he had become jealous and obsessive, in ways that were interfering with their work.

Hickey and Brainerd-Doan commenced an investigation into Bingham's complaints. On or about January 5, 2009, they met with Premier's COO, Tony Simmons, and Premier's President, James Taff. Hickey and Brainerd-Doan recommended that Thomas be terminated (due to a lack of judgment and a lack of candor during the investigation), that Flanagan receive a final written warning for inappropriate conduct directed toward Bingham and that Bingham receive a final written warning for violating Premier's electronic communication policy, it having been revealed in the investigation that Bingham had sent sexually explicit pictures of herself to Thomas over the internet. Taff initially disagreed with the recommendations, believing that Thomas and plaintiff should be treated equally--either both terminated or both issued written warnings. In a subsequent meeting with Simmons, Taff reiterated his concern that a termination was too harsh for Thomas, and that he and plaintiff should be treated equally. Simmons made the decision to follow Hickey's and Brainerd-Doan's recommendations.

After the meeting, Hickey prepared a termination notice for Thomas and written warnings for Flanagan and Bingham. Simmons and Taff met with Prudential Plaza's management and told them that Thomas would not be returning to work but that Flanagan and Bingham would both return, with Flanagan temporarily assuming Thomas' duties.

At or about 3 p.m. on January 5,*fn1 Hickey met with plaintiff, telling her that Thomas had been terminated, that Flanagan was being counseled and receiving a final written warning and that plaintiff was also receiving a final written warning for sending sexually explicit pictures of herself to Thomas. Plaintiff was further told that when she returned to work, she would be reporting to Flanagan, who would temporarily replace Thomas. Upon being given this information, particularly the information that she was expected to return to work reporting to Flanagan (whom she had complained had sexually harassed her), plaintiff became upset and indicated that she wanted to speak to her lawyer. At some time during this meeting plaintiff signed her disciplinary action. The rest of what occurred is disputed.

According to Hickey, plaintiff responded that she did not want to report to Flanagan. Hickey told her that she could request a transfer but she might or might not receive one. Plaintiff said that she needed to talk to her attorney, and Hickey gave her a brief time to do so. (Hickey 57.) According to Hickey, plaintiff then asked what Premier was offering her, and when Hickey told her nothing, "her demeanor changed. She got very upset. She folded up the paper [Hickey had given her a piece of paper at Bingham's request on which Bingham was taking notes] and said, 'I don't want a transfer. I don't want to report to Vic and I'm going to have to resign.'" (Hickey 57-58.) Hickey testified that plaintiff turned down her offer of time to consider what she wanted to do and insisted that she was resigning on the spot. Hickey testified that she didn't want plaintiff to resign and repeatedly suggested that plaintiff take time to think about her decision. Plaintiff insisted on resigning.

According to plaintiff, things transpired differently. Plaintiff testified that she was ready to return to work until Hickey informed her that she would be reporting to Flanagan, at which point plaintiff said, "I didn't see how that was right, being that he sexually harassed me and that I would need to talk to an attorney." (Bingham 42.) Hickey, according to plaintiff, gave her a day to do so. Plaintiff emphatically denied that she ever resigned, although she admits that there was some discussion of what she should do if, after speaking with an attorney, she decided to leave the company. Plaintiff testified that she left the meeting, shortly thereafter spoke with an attorney and decided to return to work.

It appears undisputed that after her meeting with plaintiff, Hickey reported to Simmons that plaintiff had resigned. Simmons then instructed to Taff to inform Prudential Plaza that there had been another change--the shift manager had resigned.

Hickey and plaintiff agree that on the following day, sometime in the morning (Hickey was at Prudential Plaza talking to Flanagan), plaintiff left Hickey a voicemail stating that she had spoken to her attorney and wished to return to work at Prudential Plaza. Hickey testified that upon listening to the voicemail, she went to Tony Simmons and told him that Bingham wanted to rescind her resignation. Simmons told Hickey that since the client had already been told that Bingham would not be returning, Bingham should be told to send in something in writing and it would be reviewed. Hickey testified that at a time the evidence establishes was 12:42 p.m. on January 6, she called Bingham back and told Bingham that she was confused by the voicemail since Bingham had resigned. Following Simmons' direction, Hickey told plaintiff that the client had already been notified that she would not be returning to work, that steps had already been taken to replace her and she should put something in writing stating that she wished to rescind her resignation.

The evidence is undisputed that, in response to plaintiff's sexual harassment complaint, Premier's management made a decision on January 5 not to fire plaintiff. Hickey went into her January 5 meeting with plaintiff with a notice of termination for Thomas and a written warning for plaintiff. Nevertheless, plaintiff ended up losing her job. Premier argues that plaintiff has no plausible theory by which she could prevail, and for this reason, summary judgment should be granted in Premier's favor. The court agrees that there is a great deal of evidence supporting Premier's account, and plaintiff's case is far from overwhelming. Nevertheless, there is evidence which leads this court to believe that granting judgment in favor of Premier is unwarranted. The material issue of whether or not plaintiff resigned is disputed, and the court believes there is enough evidence to support an alternative, minimally plausible narrative which could causally link plaintiff's sexual harassment complaint with her loss of her job.

According to Hickey, after the January 5, 3 p.m. meeting at which plaintiff resigned, Hickey immediately reported plaintiff's resignation to Simmons. Simmons then spoke to Taff and told him to make the client aware of "yet another change in the management structure" and begin taking steps to replace Bingham. (Simmons 26.) No time was specified for this Simmons-Taff conversation, but Taff testified that he communicated Bingham's ...

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