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Marica R. Johnson v. Koppers

May 25, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan H. Lefkow


Marica Johnson filed suit against Koppers, Inc., alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Koppers's motion [#47] will be granted and Johnson's motion [#39] will be denied.*fn1


I. Koppers and the Relevant Workplace Policies

Koppers is a chemical company that manufactures carbon compounds and commercial wood treatment products. The union employees in Koppers's plant in Stickney, Illinois are predominantly male. Out of eighty-seven employees, fewer than ten were women during the time period relevant to Johnson's claims. Approximately forty percent of the employees at the Stickney plant were African-American, and approximately fifty percent were white.

Koppers's General Rules of Conduct state that employees shall "[r]efrain[] from behavior or conduct deemed offensive or undesirable, or which is contrary to the Company's best interests." (Def.'s Ex. F at KI0000165.) The rules prohibit "[t]he use of abusive or inappropriate, obscene or offensive language;" "[d]isorderly conduct, including assault on another employee or customer, fighting at work, swearing, shouting, threatening behavior and other actions of an offensive nature;" and "[t]hreatening or intimidating co-workers, security guards, customers, or guests." (Id. at KI0000165--66.) Koppers's policy is to investigate all threats of violence and to take disciplinary action, including termination, if it determines that prohibited conduct occurred. (Def.'s Ex. G at KI0000170.) Koppers also has a written anti-harassment policy.

Neither the union contract nor Koppers's employee code of conduct documents mention progressive discipline.

II. Johnson's Employment History at Koppers

Marica Johnson is an African-American woman who was employed at Koppers's Stickney plant from 1995 until her termination on May 12, 2008. At the time of her termination Johnson was working as a lab technician, a position she had held since 2000, and she was supervised by Joseph Gerba. Johnson was proficient at her job.

Prior to May 2008, Johnson was disciplined five times. In December 1995, Johnson received a written warning because she had stayed on the clock after her work was finished. (Def.'s Ex. C.) In July 1999, Johnson was suspended without pay for ten workdays and received a written corrective action after the plant superintendent found her asleep at her desk in the laboratory. (Def.'s Ex. D.) In August 2000, Johnson received a written warning letter because she had been observed smoking in the hourly lunch room. (Def.'s Ex. E.)

Johnson was disciplined again, for fighting with a security guard, in November 2006. Johnson had gone to the guard shack to pick up food that she had ordered. When the guard told Johnson not to take the food, she walked behind the guard's counter without authorization and grabbed it. The guard touched Johnson, and she responded by pushing him and telling him that he "better keep his hands off [her]." (Johnson Dep. at 111.) Johnson also told the guard that she was going "bust [his] head." (Id. at 112.) Johnson testified that the guard then picked up a phone, and threatened "[w]e're going to get to busting." (Id. at 116.) Johnson was holding a stapler and she then threw it down towards the floor. (Id. at 114--15.) The incident was recorded on video. The plant manager at the time, Gregory Traczek, investigated the incident and interviewed Johnson. She was eventually suspended for ten days without pay and warned that "future such occurrences will be met with termination of employment." (Def.'s Ex. J.) The notice of suspension and final warning states, "While it is in question as to who made the initial physical contact, a plant surveillance camera video recording and accounts of the incident given by you and the security officer indicate that your actions only prolonged the situation and included a physical threat." (Id.) Johnson admits that this discipline was justified.

In July 2007, Johnson was disciplined because of an alleged altercation with Michael O'Connell, another lab technician. O'Connell is a white male who worked in the same lab as Johnson, under the same supervisors. He did not like Johnson. From time to time, Johnson's and O'Connell's shifts overlapped.

The alleged altercation between O'Connell and Johnson took place on July 13, 2007, when Johnson was working in the lab with the radio on. O'Connell came in, turned down the volume, and turned on the air conditioner. Johnson asked O'Connell why he was "messing with stuff" because it "wasn't even his shift yet." (Johnson Dep. at 121.) According to Johnson, she and O'Connell had no further significant interaction. O'Connell, however, later told Richard Wagner, the plant manager at the time, that Johnson had said "old mother-fucker, I'll get you," and called him a "white motherfucker" and a "faggot insulin dick" (presumably a reference to the fact that O'Connell is diabetic).

Without interviewing Johnson, Wagner determined that both Johnson and O'Connell were at fault. After consulting with Traczek, Wagner decided that Johnson should be disciplined more severely than O'Connell because of her prior disciplines and because O'Connell's allegations of racial harassment, if true, warranted severe action. Wagner issued a written warning letter to Johnson, which states

In the past few weeks you have exhibited disruptive behavior that has caused other employees to feel uncomfortable and intimidated. Your actions concern Koppers management especially since you have exhibited a propensity toward physical violence. This was recorded on [a] plant security video on 11/9/06 during your encounter with Louis Withers in the guard shack. At that time you were suspended for 10 days and given a "Final Warning" that a repeat of your actions "will be met with termination of employment at the Koppers Inc. Stickney Plant." Plant management has been notified by union employees that you exhibited offensive and intimidating language and behavior on a number of recent occasions. . . . .

This behavior will not be allowed in the future and will result in discharge from Koppers. (Dkt. #49-12.) O'Connell received a verbal warning letter, which was less severe than the written warning letter given to Johnson. Wagner's letter to O'Connell states in part, "Personality conflicts between lab techs has [sic] resulted in a non-productive atmosphere in the lab. Horse play, false accusations of others, verbal harassment, and any other type of disruptive behavior needs to stop immediately. This disruptive action between you and other employees needs to stop before it escalates into physical violence." (Dkt. #42-4.)

The United Steelworkers Union filed a grievance on Johnson's behalf, arguing that Johnson should not have received a written warning letter because Wagner did not interview Johnson before he disciplined her. Pursuant to an agreement between the union representatives and Koppers's management, Johnson's written warning letter was reduced to a memo that summarized Johnson's work obligations and employment status. (Dkt. #49-13, #49-14.) O'Connell's letter was also reduced to a memo, even though the union did not file a grievance on his behalf.

III. April 2008 Incident With O'Connell and Johnson's Termination

On April 28, 2008, Johnson and O'Connell got into another argument, the details of which are unclear. During her deposition, Johnson had difficulty remembering the chronology of events. O'Connell, on the other hand, refused to be deposed in this case and the parties have agreed that he will not be called as a witness at trial. (See Dkt. #37.) Therefore the court relies on Johnson's deposition testimony in recounting the events of April 28. O'Connell's allegations (which Johnson denies) are ...

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