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Traci Haskell v. Cook County Housing Authority

May 9, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Thomas M. Durkin


Plaintiff Traci Haskell alleges that her former employer, Defendant Cook County Housing Authority ("Housing Authority"), discharged her in retaliation for reporting a racial slur made by her then-direct supervisor, Paul Pennock, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The Housing Authority moves for summary judgment. R. 39. For the reasons below, the Housing Authority's motion is denied.


The following states the facts as favorably to Haskell as the record and Local Rule 56.1 require. See Hanners v. Trent, 674 F.3d 683, 691 (7th Cir. 2012). In considering the Housing Authority's summary judgment motion, the Court gives Haskell the "benefit of conflicts in the admissible evidence and favorable inferences from that evidence" but does not vouch for them. Smith v. Bray, 681 F.3d 888, 892 (7th Cir. 2012).

Haskell is an African-American woman. R. 41, Pl.'s Stmt. of Additional Facts ("PSAF") ¶ 4. The Cook County Housing Authority hired Haskell as a property asset manager in October 2010. R. 39, Def.'s Stmt. of Facts ("DSOF") ¶ 1. Haskell's initial direct supervisor was Dennis Rhoades, but after the Housing Authority terminated his employment, Paul Pennock, Director of Asset Management at the Housing Authority, became Haskell's direct supervisor. DSOF ¶ 4. Pennock is white. PSAF ¶ 4.

On December 4, 2010, Pennock held a meeting with the south-side managers, including Haskell. DSOF ¶ 6. At the meeting, Pennock referred to Haskell as "ghetto."*fn1 PSAF ¶ 4. The comment offended Haskell. Id. Two to three weeks later, Haskell told Doris Stephenson, the Housing Authority's Director of Human Resources, about the comment that Pennock made at the meeting. DSOF ¶ 7; PSAF ¶ 5. Considering Haskell's communication to her to be a complaint of discrimination, Stephenson initiated an investigation. DSOF ¶ 9. After Haskell reported Pennock's comment, she noticed a change in his behavior toward her; while Pennock previously had been friendly towards her, he then became "distant and short." PSAF ¶ 12.

As part of the investigation, Stephenson interviewed Pennock on February 16, 2011. PSAF ¶ 7. After the interview, on February 23, 2011, Pennock wrote a memorandum addressed to Stephenson, regarding Haskell's "[r]ecent [a]llegation."

R. 41-3 at 2, Exh. C, Memorandum from Pennock to Stephenson. Pennock noted in the memorandum that he was unaware that the Housing Authority had policies against racism and harassment and denied that he used a "racial slur" during the December meeting. Id. Pennock stated that he "believe[d] [Haskell] [was] concerned about her job because things do not run well at her sites and she has performance issues." Id. He then explained the context surrounding the comment he made at the meeting:

During my first week at the Agency, I had to tour [Haskell's] site with a vendor . . . . When we got into the parking lot . . . and were getting into cars, [Haskell] showed us her vehicle, which is a Jaguar, and stated "that's my car there; we cannot all fit into it[.]" I responded that it was in fact a very nice car. Her reply was "DON'T LET IT FOOL YOU, I CAN GET GHETTO WHEN I NEED TO."

Id. at 3 (capitalization in original). According to Pennock, after he terminated Rhoades' employment, he held a staff meeting for the south-side managers to advise them of that termination. Id. He then explained:

I do remember using the word "ghetto." [Haskell] was talking about problems with [r]esidents at her family sites. We were talking about having to get tough with [r]esidents to pay rent and to evict people who were vandalizing the property. Additionally, we were talking about the gang/drug dealers on the street corners at her site. Traci was stating that she was not going to put up with the "trouble they are causing." Staff members were laughing in a way as if to say "what are you going to do, there is nothing to do[.]" So I commented back to [Haskell] stating "You told me you get ghetto when you have to. We need to get tough at these family sites and hold residents accountable for their actions[.]" She laughed and said "that's right[.]" The meeting continued to discuss the problems of the sites.

Id. Pennock concluded the memorandum:

Traci remains as an employee because we have a responsibility to work with her to try and make her the best manager she can be. Until I am 100% convinced that she cannot be functional at her job, she remains as an employee. [Haskell] does, however, need to be told that making false accusations like this is not acceptable and could jeopardize her employment status in the future.

Id. at 4-5.

About a week after the Housing Authority received Haskell's complaint regarding Pennock's comment, it directed that Haskell report directly to Executive Director Lorri Newson. DSOF ¶ 11; PSAF ¶ 13. When Newson left the Housing Authority in June 2011, Haskell was then directed to report to Assistant Asset Director of the south-side properties, Michelle Gee. PSAF ¶ 14. At that time, Pennock was Gee's direct supervisor and had the authority to discipline, promote, demote, and fire Gee. ...

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