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Shawnya Robinson v. the Village of Oak Park

April 16, 2013

SHAWNYA ROBINSON,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE VILLAGE OF OAK PARK,
DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 10 L 12881 Honorable Raymond W. Mitchell, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Quinn

JUSTICE QUINN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Presiding Justice Harris and Justice Simon concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 I. INTRODUCTION

¶ 2 Plaintiff, a Jehovah's Witness, is currently employed by the defendant, the Village of Oak Park in its finance department. After plaintiff was laid off from her employment with the defendant, she filed a claim of religious discrimination with the Illinois Human Rights Commission (Commission), claiming she was fired because of her religion. After the Commission conducted its investigation into the allegation, it dismissed plaintiff's claim with its finding that there was no substantial evidence to support her claim. Plaintiff then sued her employer in the circuit court alleging religious discrimination in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/1-101 through 10-103 (West 2010)) based on allegations that the defendant failed to accommodate plaintiff's religious beliefs during a large-scale layoff process which required placing employees, such as the plaintiff, into remaining available positions without violating the employees' rights under a governing collective bargaining agreement. The circuit court granted the defendant-employer's motion for summary judgment. This appeal by the plaintiff followed.

¶ 3 The Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/1-101 through 10-103 (West 2010)) prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual on the basis of, among other things, his or her religious beliefs. If the employer can reasonably accommodate the individual's religious beliefs so he/she can perform the essential functions of the job without undue hardship or can otherwise fairly suggest a resolution to a potential conflict between an individual's performance and his or her religious beliefs, but did not do so, the employer can be liable under the Illinois Human Rights Act.

¶ 4 II. EXHAUSTION OF ADMINISTRATIVE REMEDIES

¶ 5 A case is properly commenced under the Illinois Human Rights Act when an aggrieved party files a written charge within 180 days of the alleged violation with the Illinois Human Rights Commission. 775 ILCS 5/7A-102(A) (West 2010). The employer, in this case the defendant, Village of Oak Park, must file its response to the charge and both parties may file position statements and other materials. 775 ILCS 5/7-102(B) (West 2010). The Commission then proceeds to independently investigate the factual basis of the charge to determine whether there is substantial evidence that a violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act has been committed. 775 ILCS 5/7-102 (C) (West 2010). "Substantial evidence" is defined as "evidence which a reasonable mind accepts as sufficient to support a particular conclusion and which consists of more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance" of evidence. 775 ILCS 5/7A-102(D)(2) (West 2010). Following its investigation, if the Commission finds that there is no substantial evidence that the Illinois Human Rights Act was violated, it must dismiss the charge. The aggrieved party's rights do not end there as he/she is given 90 days to either file a request for review with the Commission or file a complaint in Illinois circuit court, where he/she is now entitled to request a jury trial in the event her complaint and pleadings withstand procedural and substantive defenses. 775 ILCS 5/7A-102(C)(4), (K) (West 2010).

¶ 6 We ordered plaintiff to file the final administrative decision by the Illinois Human Rights Commission as a supplement to the record on appeal as critical dates were missing from the record. This information was necessary for us to perform an independent evaluation of the issue of jurisdiction which includes whether plaintiff had timely exhausted all of her administrative remedies. Neither party filed the requisite jurisdictional statement as part of its appellate brief in compliance with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 341(h)(4)(ii) (July 1, 2008). Illinois courts have consistently held that time limitations for bringing actions before administrative bodies are matters of jurisdiction that cannot be tolled. Fredman Brothers Furniture Co. v. Department of Revenue, 109 Ill. 2d 202, 209-10 (1985); Robinson v. Illinois Human Rights Comm'n, 201 Ill. App. 3d 722, 729 (1990) (requirement that the charge must be filed with Commission within 180 days after alleged violation occurred is jurisdictional and not subject to defense of tolling). Therefore, this court suggests that plaintiffs who exercise their right to file a circuit court case alleging a violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act attach a copy of the Illinois Human Rights Commission's final agency action to their circuit court complaint or otherwise allege sufficient facts with supporting dates in the body of the complaint sufficient to demonstrate that he/she did, in fact, timely exhaust all available administrative remedies at all stages.

¶ 7 The exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine has long been a fundamental principle of administrative law and an aggrieved party ordinarily cannot seek review in the courts without first pursuing all administrative remedies. Illinois Bell Telephone Co. v. Allphin, 60 Ill. 2d 350, 357-58 (1975). This exhaustion requirement not only conserves valuable judicial time (Castaneda v. Illinois Human Rights Comm'n, 132 Ill. 2d 304, 308 (1989)) but allows a party to possibly succeed before the administrative body, making judicial review unnecessary, (Illinois Bell Telephone Co. v. Allphin, 60 Ill. 2d 350 (1975)) and allows the administrative body with its particular expertise to fully develop and consider important facts (id.).

¶ 8 Our review has determined that plaintiff timely exhausted her administrative remedies and timely appealed the circuit court's grant of defendant's motion for summary judgment. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to review this appeal.

¶ 9 III. BACKGROUND

¶ 10 In February 2005, the defendant hired the plaintiff. She was always covered by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 8, collective bargaining agreement that the defendant had entered into with the union for Village of Oak Park (the Village) employees.

¶ 11 In 2007, the defendant, not unlike many Illinois municipalities at this time, began encountering financial problems including budget shortfalls, that caused the defendant to reduce the number of full-time employee positions. By December 2007, the defendant had laid off 53 full-time employees. Of those, 31 remain laid off and have not been called back to work. Plaintiff was laid off in September 2009 and was called back and is actively employed by the defendant.

¶ 12 In 2007, the defendant promoted the plaintiff to the position of community relations representative in defendant's community relations department. The defendant had promoted the plaintiff over a more senior (non-Jehovah's Witness) employee. There was significant union litigation surrounding defendant's promotion of the plaintiff into this position. The union filed a grievance on behalf of the nonselected employee alleging that the more senior employee should have been promoted. The defendant denied the union's claim. The claim was then scheduled for arbitration and defendant defended its selection of the plaintiff over the more senior employee during the course of a multiday union arbitration hearing. However, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the union and ordered that the more senior employee be placed in the position occupied by the plaintiff. Therefore, in September 2009, plaintiff was informed that her position was being eliminated as the defendant could not afford to have two community relations representatives. The 2009 arbitration decision and the terms of the governing collective bargaining agreement caused the plaintiff to be "bumped" from the position she held since 2007 by the more senior, incoming employee. This situation caused plaintiff to be faced with being laid off, but also gave plaintiff certain rights under the collective bargaining agreement to "bump" other employees with less seniority who held an equal or lower position, provided the plaintiff was qualified for the position.

ΒΆ 13 Given plaintiff's low level of seniority as compared to other employees remaining on staff from the 2007 layoffs, together with plaintiff's limited qualifications and the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement, the defendant's human resource director identified a position where ...


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