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Rogers v. Waukegan Public School Dist. 60

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 14, 2013

Alphonso ROGERS, Plaintiff,
v.
WAUKEGAN PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT 60, Defendant.

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H. Yvonne Coleman, Law Office of H. Yvonne Coleman, P.C., Joel F. Handler, Attorney At Law, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff.

Kathryn S. Vander Broek, Linda Kay Horras, Thomas A. Morris, Jr., Scott M. Gilbert, Virginia Brette Bensinger, Hinshaw & Culbertson, Suzanne Miller Bonds, Jeffrey M. Goldberg & Associates, Chicago, IL, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

FEINERMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Alphonso Rogers alleges in this suit that Defendant Waukegan Public School District 60: (1) discriminated against him on the basis of his race (African-American) in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., when it suspended him, changed the terms of his employment, issued him a reprimand letter, and ultimately fired him; (2) fired him in retaliation for his filing a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ), also in violation of Title VII; and (3) breached its state law contractual obligations by failing to pay him for unused sick days and vacation days. Doc. 72 (third amended complaint). The District has moved for summary judgment. Doc. 134.

The motion is granted in part and denied in part. The District is entitled to summary judgment on Rogers's Title VII discrimination claim, except as it relates to his termination. For each of the other alleged discriminatory actions, the District either has shown that the action was not a " materially adverse employment action" or has provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, and unrebutted reason for taking the action. The District is not entitled to summary judgment on the discriminatory termination claim because Rogers has adduced enough evidence of pretext to rebut the District's nondiscriminatory explanation for firing him. Nor is summary judgment granted on the retaliation claim; the District's sole argument— that it decided to fire Rogers before learning that he had filed an EEOC charge— fails because a reasonable jury could find that the termination decision was made after the District learned of the charge. Finally, the District is entitled to summary judgment on Rogers's contract claim because the contract unambiguously provides that Rogers was not entitled to the pay he seeks for the unused vacation days and sick days.

Background

The following states the facts as favorably to Rogers as the record and Local Rule 56.1 allow. See Hanners v. Trent, 674 F.3d 683, 691 (7th Cir.2012). In considering the District's summary judgment motion, the court must assume the truth of those facts, but it does not vouch for them. See Smith v. Bray, 681 F.3d 888, 892 (7th Cir.2012).

The District is a public school system in Waukegan, Illinois, that operates a high school and several middle schools and elementary schools. Doc. 153 at ¶¶ 2-3. At the top of the District's decisionmaking hierarchy is the Board of Education, whose seven elected members make decisions by majority vote. Id. at ¶ 4. The District's day-to-day operations are overseen by a superintendent hired by the Board. Id. at ¶ 5. Dr. Donaldo Batiste was the superintendent at all relevant times. Ibid. Although the superintendent makes many decisions on his own, the Board makes termination decisions after a recommendation from the superintendent. Id. at ¶ 6.

Rogers began working for the District in 1985. Id. at ¶ 9. He was employed as the Director of Safety and Security for much of that time. Ibid. Prior to July 2006, Rogers reported directly to the superintendent and had significant autonomy in

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managing the Safety Department. Id. at ¶ 11. That month, the District hired Jules Gaudin to serve as deputy superintendent and chief operating officer. Id. at ¶ 12. At that point, Rogers began reporting to Gaudin rather than to Batiste. Ibid. Gaudin, a certified public accountant, worked with Rogers to cut costs by bringing oversight and accountability to the Department's payroll practices. Id. at ¶¶ 13-15.

Rogers signed off on the payroll forms submitted by his subordinates before they were sent to the District's payroll clerk. Id. at ¶ 20. Rogers had previously allowed safety officers to change their scheduled hours without recording the changes on their time sheets; Rogers referred to this practice as the " honor system." Id. at ¶ 23. Some of the safety officers held full-time employment with other employers while also working full-time for the District. Id. at ¶ 24. In July 2007, the wife of a safety officer told Gaudin that she believed that her husband had been receiving pay for hours he had not worked and that he had told her that he could take as much overtime as he wanted, though he seemed not to be working very much overtime. Id. at ¶ 26.

Gaudin went to the police, whose investigation resulted in the arrest and criminal prosecution of some officers, who ultimately were acquitted. Id. at ¶ ¶ 27, 30; Doc. 158 at ¶ 6. The District retained an outside company, Probe International, Inc., to perform an independent investigation of the Safety Department's timekeeping and payroll practices. Doc. 153 at ¶ 34. In January 2008, during the Probe investigation, Rogers overheard Sonny Garza, a board member, tell one of the District's custodians that he (Garza) was out to get Rogers and the rest of his staff, whom Garza referred to as " niggers." Id. at ¶ 32; Doc. 158 at ¶ 7.

In February 2008, Batiste decided to place Rogers on paid suspension pending Probe's investigation to ensure that he would not interfere with the investigation or influence the Safety Department employees whom Probe would be interviewing. Doc. 153 at ¶ 36. Batiste appointed William Newby, who is white, to serve as the interim Director of Safety in Rogers's place. Id. at ¶ 37. Newby's ambition was not to hold onto that job but to assume a higher position in the District. Id. at ¶ 38. Batiste feared that Newby (who had been an unsuccessful candidate for principal of the District's high school earlier in 2008) might quit working for the District altogether if not given a job with more responsibility. Id. at ¶ 39. In May 2008, Batiste recommended and the Board approved the creation of a new high-level position, the Executive Director of Campus Relations, Operations, and Safety, to oversee various District operations, including the Safety Department, and appointed Newby to the new position. Id. at ¶¶ 40, 43.

Rogers asserts that " [a]round April or May of 2008, Batiste called Rogers into his office shortly after the new board was elected and said this group of board members is out to get you. He implied it was racially motivated because of Rogers' association with the African-American board members." Doc. 158 at ¶ 13. But in the portions of his deposition transcript cited to support this assertion, Doc. 155 at 9, Rogers fails to explain or justify his inference that Batiste thought the new Board's dislike of Rogers may have been racially motivated, and so the court will disregard that unsupported and conclusory assertion. As discussed below, the Board was racially diverse, with three white members, two Hispanic members, and two African-American members as of April 2008. Doc. 153 at ¶ 4.

Around May 2008, another Board member, Mark Hawn, spoke with Batiste about the Safety Department and said that Rogers

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should be removed from the Director position so that the District could professionalize the Department. Id. at ¶ 46. Hawn's two children had attended the Waukegan public schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and during that time Rogers had disciplined them for using the term " nigger" at school. Id. at ¶ 47. Hawn challenged Rogers at the time, saying that Rogers was picking on his children; later, when one of Hawn's children moved across the street from Rogers, Hawn told Rogers that he did not want any " shit" from Rogers now that his son was Rogers's neighbor. Ibid. Rogers inferred from these interactions that Hawn had a personal vendetta against him. Doc. 158 at ¶ 12.

After completing its investigation, Probe submitted to the District a report stating that Rogers had failed to follow the applicable timekeeping procedures, had created the impression of favoritism by approving excessive overtime pay for only some safety officers, and had mishandled funds that students paid to the Safety Department in exchange for temporary student IDs and parking passes. Doc. 153 at ¶¶ 48-49. Rogers disputes the truth of Probe's assertions, and so the court will assume that they were incorrect; but Rogers does not dispute that Probe's report made those assertions and that the District had a ground for believing them. Ibid.

In July 2008, Rogers's suspension ended and he returned to his position as Director of the Safety Department. Id. at ¶ 52. At that point, he reported to Newby rather than Gaudin. Ibid. Rogers's responsibilities and perquisites as Director were diminished by the creation of Newby's job as Executive Director of Campus Relations, Operations, and Safety: Rogers lost some of his budgeting, payroll, and scheduling responsibilities; he was moved to a smaller office, which measured 11.5 feet x 11 feet (Newby's was 14 feet x 13 feet); and he had to drive a different District vehicle than the one he had previously used. Id. at ¶¶ 53, 56. Because of the timekeeping and payroll problems discussed by the Probe report, Batiste directed Newby to handle the Safety Department's payroll functions himself. Id. at ¶ 57.

Rogers viewed Newby as a difficult and demanding supervisor. Id. at ¶ 58. In August 2008, Newby memorialized in writing a verbal warning he had given to Rogers concerning his behavior at a meeting with the high school's principal about whether to install metal detectors. Id. at ¶ 80. The warning did not result in the loss of any pay, benefits, position, or prestige. Ibid. In another incident, Rogers wanted to hire an African-American to fill an open position and Newby refused; Newby told Rogers that one of the complaints that others at the District had about him was that he always wanted to hire African-Americans. Doc. 158 at ¶ 26. Rogers told Batiste that he thought Newby was being extremely racist. Id. at ¶ 25.

Also in August 2008, the Board voted unanimously to fire two Safety Department employees who had been investigated for allegedly receiving unearned compensation. Doc. 153 at ¶ 60. The Board also discussed Rogers, and though no member suggested that he be fired, the Board did request that he attend a due process hearing to discuss the Board's concerns about how he had managed the Department before the Probe investigation. Id. at ¶ 61. The hearing was scheduled for August 22, but Rogers requested a continuance and then went on a continuous period of sick leave, medical leave, and vacation leave. Id. at ¶¶ 52, 62. Rogers ...


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