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Coleman v. Illinois Department of Human Services

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

September 24, 2013




Plaintiff, Stacey A. Coleman alleges race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, interference with her rights and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq., and violation of her procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution against the Illinois Department of Human Services ("IDHS"), Michael Jankowski, Christine Hammond, and Jeri Gulli (collectively referred to as "defendants").[1] Presently before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment [dkt. 115]. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.


Summary judgment obviates the need for a trial where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). To determine whether any genuine issue of fact exists, the court must pierce the pleadings and assess the proof as presented in depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits that are part of the record. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) & advisory committee's notes. The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of proving that there is no genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). In response, the non-moving party cannot rest on mere pleadings alone but must use the evidentiary tools listed above to designate specific material facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324; Insolia v. Philip Morris Inc., 216 F.3d 596, 598 (7th Cir. 2000). A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit. Insolia, 216 F.3d at 598-99. Although a bare contention that an issue of fact exists is insufficient to create a factual dispute, Bellaver v. Quanex Corp., 200 F.3d 485, 492 (7th Cir. 2000), the court must construe all facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).


Coleman began working at IDHS's Howe Development Center ("Howe") in Tinley Park, Illinois as a support services worker in the dietary department. IDHS development centers, such as Howe, were residential programs serving people with severe medical and/or behavioral needs. Most of Coleman's time was spent in the tray line, which was a position that most employees at Howe did not enjoy. Coleman believed that approximately eighty percent of the employees at Howe were African-American while twenty percent were Caucasian.

Hammond was the director of nutrition services. As the director of nutrition services, she oversaw the main kitchen and clinical services at Howe. Her duties also included supervising employees, including Coleman. Jankowski was the dietary manager at Howe. Hammond was Jankowski's supervisor, and Jankowski was Coleman's supervisor. Between 2006 and 2010, Gulli was the director of human resources at Howe. The human resources department processed leaves of absence, discipline, termination, and employee benefits, among other programs. Gulli was never Coleman's supervisor and could not recall if she had ever met Coleman.

I. IDHS's Affirmative Attendance Policy

A. Affirmative Attendance/Time Off Requests

The IDHS had an attendance policy which defined unauthorized absences as those for which the time off was not approved.[3] Employees were allowed five excused absences each year. The policy also required that employees report to work on time each day. Additionally, employee requests for benefit time needed to be supported with a time-off form signed by the employee. The employee needed to submit the request for time off to his or her supervisor, who consulted with the human resources department to determine whether the employee provided sufficient justification for the request. An employee who missed work due to a medical illness and received an unexcused absence could have the absence letter treated as excused by providing the proper medical certification. In an emergency, an employee could call in and submit a formal request for time off after returning to work.

B. One-Hour Call-In

An employee who planned to miss work on a certain day was required to call in to notify their supervisor at least one hour before their shift started. The only exception was in cases of extenuating circumstances, such as incapacitation, which prevented an employee from meeting the one-hour call-in requirement. There were no restrictions on how early an employee could call in before his or her shift. Regardless of when the call arrived, either an operator at the switchboard or a manager in the kitchen would take the call and record it in the logbook. If an employee called in less than an hour before the start of his or her shift, the employee was required to present proof for why he or she did not call in a timely matter. If the employee failed to present such proof, he or she would receive an unauthorized absence.

Eleven unauthorized absences with a call-in, six unauthorized absences with no call, or a combination of excessive unexcused absences with call-ins or no calls in a twenty-four month period, resulted in termination. Gulli and Hammond, in their roles as department supervisors, had the authority and discretion to waive the one hour call-in requirement. Hammond had the final authority to alter an unexcused absence resulting from a late call-in.

C. Bereavement

The IDHS attendance policy permitted an employee to use sick time for bereavement. In requesting time off for bereavement, an employee had to complete a time-off request form in advance and submit it for approval.

II. IDHS's FMLA Leave Policy

The IDHS's FMLA leave policy permitted an employee to request time off to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition or to take time off because of their own serious health condition. FMLA leave was not to be considered in disciplining employees for unauthorized absences under the IDHS's attendance policy.

In order to have an absence covered by the FMLA, an employee needed to submit an FMLA application to the human resources department. Included with the application was a health care provider certification that the applicant's physician needed to complete, which detailed the nature of the applicant's illness. The amount of time it took the human resources department to review an application was dependent on the volume of paperwork being processed at the time. If approved, the human resources department notified the applicant's supervisor, whose signature was required for final approval. After an employee was approved for FMLA leave, the employee could use that leave to take specific days off by completing a request-for-time-off form and presenting it to his or her supervisor.

If an employee required FMLA time prior to completing the paperwork, he or she was required to use accumulated benefit time. If the employee had already used available benefit time, the employee was required to use one of the five excused absences that were allowed each year. Absent extenuating circumstances, the approval date of an employee's FMLA leave was the date the employee requested the blank FMLA documents from the human resources department. The employee had 15 days to return that paperwork to the human resources department. If the employee failed to do so, the approval date for the employee's FMLA leave was the date the employee returned the completed documents to the human resources department. The IDHS FMLA policy instructed an employee who failed to submit this paperwork within 15 days to "contact the Bureau of Labor Relations office immediately." Pl. L.R. 56.1 Ex. 1, Dkt. 124-1, Page ID #756.

When foreseeable, an employee seeking to use FMLA was required to provide their supervisor with 30 days notice. When not foreseeable, however, an employee was required to provide notice as soon as practicable, or within one work day before learning of the need to take FMLA covered time off. Additionally, in an unforeseeable circumstance, the employee could provide "timely notice, " meaning notice within two working days of returning to work that the time off was for an FMLA-qualifying reason.

The IDHS's FMLA policy also required that the IDHS notify an employee within two days of approving time off as FMLA-covered. If that notice was given verbally, the policy required that it be confirmed in writing 10 days later. The policy forbade retroactive designation of time off as FMLA-covered leave except when the IDHS knew the reason for the time off but was unable to confirm that it was FMLA-qualifying or where the medical certification had not yet been provided. In such a case, IDHS made a preliminary determination and then notified the employee; if the medical certification later confirmed the absence was for an illness deemed to be FMLA-qualified, the preliminary designation became final.

Hammond did not have decisionmaking authority regarding whether to approve an application for FMLA leave, nor could she assign the date that the leave was approved. Hammond could, however, approve the requested dates as FMLA leave after the proper paperwork had been processed by the human resources department. Jankowski's only role in the FMLA approval process was to direct employees to the human resources department if employees requested FMLA leave from him.

III. Coleman's Attendance Issues

A. Coleman's Time-Off in 2006 to Care for Her Daughter

In 2006, Coleman's daughter, who suffered from chronic asthma, was hospitalized after suffering a severe asthma attack and coming down with pneumonia. After her daughter was released from the hospital, Coleman had to administer special medication to her periodically throughout the day, which caused her to be absent from or late to work on a number of occasions.

In early 2006, Hammond and Jankowski suspended Coleman's employment because of excessive tardiness. Coleman explained that her daughter's medical condition caused her to be late for work; neither Hammond nor Jankowski informed Coleman that she could take FMLA leave at that time. Coleman's union representative told her that she should request FMLA leave and, on April 6, 2006, Coleman submitted a request for FMLA leave to care for her daughter. Coleman's request was ultimately approved as of April 5, 2006, and she was granted intermittent FMLA leave to care for her daughter's chronic condition. The FMLA leave to care for her daughter expired on January 1, 2007.

B. Coleman's Time-Off in 2006 to Care for Her Mother

That same year, Coleman missed work because her mother was hospitalized and needed at-home care. Coleman's mother was a double amputee who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and congestive heart failure; she required 24-hour care. On August 4, 2006, Coleman called in at 6:05 a.m. to request the day off as FMLA-covered to care for her mother.[4] The next day, Coleman submitted a time off request. Hammond told Coleman that she had approved the request for time off. The IDHS's records, however, indicate that Coleman received an unexcused absence for that day.

On September 9, 2006, Coleman's mother was admitted to the hospital for congestive heart failure and remained in the hospital until September 15, 2006. Coleman had to be present at the hospital to make medical decisions. On September 12, 2006, Coleman notified the human resources department, and Gulli sent Coleman IDHS's standard FMLA policy form indicating that she may be eligible for FMLA leave, instructing Coleman to submit a health care provider certification. Pl. L.R. 56.1 Ex. 15, Dkt. 125-13.

On November 13, 2006, Coleman submitted the FMLA request to provide intermittent care for her mother, which was approved that day. Coleman's FMLA leave in connection with caring for her mother expired on April 1, 2007. On November 18 and 19, 2006, Coleman called in to request FMLA leave to care for her mother. Her written request for time off, however, reflects that she asked for accumulated holiday time for November 18 and FMLA leave for November 19. The November 18 absence was treated as unexcused, but the request for November 19 was excused. Pl. L.R. 56.1 Ex. 17, Dkt. 125-15.

C. Coleman's Time-Off in 2006 and 2007 to Treat Her Migraines

In the fall of 2006, Coleman began suffering from debilitating migraines and was diagnosed with Tennial Migraine Headaches, also known as peri-menopausal migraines. Coleman took medication to treat her condition, and the medication made her drowsy. As a result, Coleman sometimes slept through her alarm and was late for work. Coleman informed Hammond about her medical condition and that her medication caused her to oversleep.

On February 5, 2007, Coleman saw a doctor for a severe migraine and missed work. The migraine continued into the next day causing Coleman to miss work again. Both days, Coleman called in to request FMLA leave.[5] On February 9, 2007, Coleman returned to work and told Hammond that she wanted to take FMLA leave for her absences on February 5 and February 6. Coleman provided Hammond with her doctor's preliminary diagnosis and return to work note, and again explained to Hammond that she was on medication that caused her to oversleep. Hammond treated Coleman's absence on February 5 as an excused absence.

According to Coleman, in the February 9, 2007 conversation, Hammond told Coleman that she would need to use her remaining benefit time until her FMLA application was approved. Coleman told Hammond that her doctor ordered further medical tests over the next two months. Hammond told Coleman to submit her FMLA application once she received a final diagnosis. Hammond stated that she would backdate the February 6, 2007 absence as FMLA-covered once Coleman's FMLA paperwork had been approved by the human resources department. Hammond did not tell Coleman that she needed to have FMLA paperwork submitted by a certain date.

On February 9, 2007, Coleman learned that her grandmother had passed away. On February 10, 2007, Coleman called in an hour before her shift started to request an excused absence as a bereavement day, but she received an unexcused absence for this day. Then, between February 24 through February 27, 2007, Coleman called in late to request FMLA leave to care for her mother. When Coleman returned to work, she provided Hammond with a time-off request and asked that her absences those days be treated as covered by the FMLA. Hammond initially approved all four days as covered by the FMLA but later recategorized Coleman's request to only reflect her absence on February 25, 2007 as covered by the FMLA.

On March 12, 2007, Coleman called in late, requesting two hours of personal time because of a migraine. She called an hour later asking for the entire day off. The following day, Coleman requested that her absence from the prior day be treated as FMLA-covered. On March 13, 2007, Hammond told Coleman that her request would be backdated as FMLA-covered once her FMLA application was approved.

On March 27 and 28, 2007, Coleman suffered from a severe migraine. On March 27, 2007, Coleman called in late and requested FMLA leave. The next day, Coleman timely called in and requested two hours of personal time with the hope that she would come into work later that day. An hour-and-a-half later, Coleman called back and requested the entire day off because her migraine worsened. On March 29, 2007, Coleman provided Hammond with a return to work certificate from her doctor and submitted a time-off request asking that her absences from the two prior days be treated as FMLA-covered. Hammond explained that Coleman needed to first submit the necessary paperwork to the human resources department before she could treat those absences as covered by the FMLA. Hammond told Coleman that she would ...

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