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Abrams v. Springfield Urban League

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

August 30, 2013

MICHAEL ABRAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
SPRINGFIELD URBAN LEAGUE, Defendant.

OPINION

RICHARD MILLS, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

Plaintiff Michael Abrams has filed a Complaint which alleges claims pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. ยง 621 et seq. (ADEA), arising from his employment with Defendant Springfield Urban League. Abrams also asserts a supplemental state law retaliatory discharge claim for exercising his rights under the worker's compensation statute. The Defendant claims that Plaintiff's former position was eliminated and his duties were consolidated into a new position.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Introduction

Defendant Springfield Urban League ("the Defendant" or "Springfield Urban League") is a federally funded not-for-profit human services organization that employs approximately 245 individuals and operates the Head Start Program, [1] which includes the Head Start, Early Head Start and Wee Grow programs. Plaintiff Michael Abrams ("the Plaintiff" or "Abrams") was employed by the Defendant as the Maintenance Coordinator from August of 2005 until August 27, 2010.

Nina Harris has been employed by the Springfield Urban League for over 20 years. For the past nine years, Harris has served as its President/Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Beverly Hicks-Gibson has been employed by the Springfield Urban League for thirteen years. Hicks-Gibson first served as the Fiscal Officer for the Head Start Program. She then became the Springfield Urban League's Chief Financial Officer ("CFO") in 2003 and now serves in dual roles as the CFO and Senior Vice President.

B. Springfield Urban League in 2009-2010

The Defendant alleges that, during the 2009-2010 academic year, the national and local economy was in a state of flux. The Plaintiff claims the general state of the national economy is not relevant to what happened in Springfield, Illinois. During this period the National Urban League, of which the Defendant is an affiliate, took measures to support and fortify affiliates because their doors were closing across the country. Abrams further disputes this allegation because Harris's statements cited in support of the assertion relate to the National Urban League's closing of affiliates in Ohio.

The Defendant also alleges that, at the start of the 2009-2010 school year, serious budgetary concerns caused it to closely review its overall operational costs, given that the State of Illinois had already raised concerns as to its commitment to provide continuous funding of Springfield Urban League programs. Harris testified that the Illinois Department of Public Health, a long-time source of funding for Springfield Urban League's service programs, advised the Defendant that the State would no longer compensate providers based upon a verbal commitment. Accordingly, the Defendant had to scramble to find resources to compensate employees and was forced to lay off employees. Abrams disputes that the problems were serious or based on the State of Illinois' funding. Moreover, he claims that the consolidation of the transportation and maintenance coordinator positions were specifically under the Head Start Program which was federally funded, not state funded.

The Defendant further alleges that Nina Harris recalled a conversation related to the Springfield Urban League's Head Start Program with a federal representative who cautioned that it maintain its operations within contractual confines. The Plaintiff disputes this and other allegations related to the 2009-2010 academic year on the basis that the statements constitute inadmissible hearsay.[2]

As part of her job responsibilities, Human Resources Officer Karen Norris received an annual loss run from the Defendant's worker's compensation carrier, Midwest Insurance. The Defendant experienced a substantial increase in costs related to required workers' compensation premiums with an expectation of continued increases. In 2009, the Defendant's workers' compensation payment obligations increased by $111, 572.74 over the prior year and this unanticipated increase caused heightened budgetary concerns. Additionally, there was an increase in costs related to its health and dental insurance premium obligations.

The Defendant further experienced concerns about potential rising future utility costs based on ongoing discussions about construction of a new local power plant. The Plaintiff disputes the allegation, claiming that Springfield Urban League Head Start's utility costs actually decreased from $175, 789 in 2009 to $172, 424 in 2010.

As a result of these ongoing budgetary concerns, at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the Defendant took the unprecedented step of terminating all employees. Thereafter, Springfield Urban League conducted an internal audit of the Head Start Program that included: reviewing employee personnel files, assessing employee's performance evaluations, assessing individual employee's compliance with the federal educational mandate, and analyzing the Head Start Program's finances. Abrams disputes these allegations as misleading. He notes that the funding for the Head Start and Early Head Start Program did not reduce from 2009 to 2010, but actually increased by $149, 209. Harris described the financial situation facing the organization "as even worse than we've seen it in years past."

The Defendant alleges that not only did funding for the 2009-2010 school year not include any increase in operational costs, but it was anticipated that funding would remain stagnant for the 2010-2011 school year. The Plaintiff disputes the allegation, claiming that the funding for the Head Start Program increased from 2009 to 2010 and its increase of operational costs did not exceed the increase in funding. Moreover, Head Start/Early Head Start funding increased by another $94, 304.00 from 2010 to 2011.

The Springfield Urban League did receive Federal stimulus money in the form of a cost-of-living adjustment ("COLA") for fiscal year 2011 in the amount of $96, 909. However, the COLA was directly tied to employee salaries; therefore, Hicks-Gibson could not re-allocate any of these dedicated purpose funds to cover other Head Start expenditures. After Springfield Urban League completed its proposed budget for the 2010-2011 school year, Harris directed Hicks-Gibson to prepare and present recommendations on ways the Defendant could save money and reduce its operational budget. Hicks-Gibson evaluated a proposed consolidation of the Springfield Urban League Transportation and Maintenance Departments as a possible means to address its budgetary constraints.

C. Consolidation of Transportation and Maintenance Departments

Beverly Hicks-Gibson determined that a consolidation of the Transportation and Maintenance Departments was a viable and necessary option due to overall rising operational costs. Hicks-Gibson relied upon Head Start program class size and staffing patterns to further assess possible cost reductions. Specifically, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the federal Head Start Program regulations each required a certain number of staff to work in the classrooms and to serve as bus drivers and bus monitors, which necessitated the Springfield Urban League to look at administrative and managerial positions for possible cost reductions. Under the Head Start Program's mandatory staffing requirements, neither the Maintenance Coordinator nor the Transportation Coordinator positions were required. Therefore, Hicks-Gibson proposed that these two separate positions be eliminated.

Based on the alleged need to reduce operational costs, Hicks-Gibson recommended that Springfield Urban League eliminate the position of Maintenance Coordinator then held by Abrams and the position of Transportation Coordinator held by Tami McKittrick and that Robert Garee, a Springfield Urban League employee with greater employment seniority, be appointed to a newly created and consolidated Transportation/Maintenance Coordinator position. The Plaintiff disputes ...


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