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Luster-Malone v. Cook County

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

December 12, 2013

COOK COUNTY et al., Defendant

For Denise R. Luster-Malone, Plaintiff: Michael T. Smith, LEAD ATTORNEY, Michael T. Smith & Associates, Roselle, IL.

For County Of Cook, an Illinois Municipal Corporation doing business as John Stroger Jr., Hospital of Cook County, Defendant: Colleen Bernadette Cavanaugh, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cook County State's Attorney's Office, Chicago, IL; Nicholas S. Scouffas, LEAD ATTORNEY, James Charles Pullos, Cook County State's Attorneys Office (50 W), Chicago, IL.

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Memorandum Opinion and Order

Honorable Edmond E. Chang, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Denise Luster-Malone brought this disability-discrimination action against

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Defendant Cook County.[1] Luster-Malone worked for the County at Stroger Hospital from 1984 to 2009, when she was fired, according to the County, for insubordination and for improperly claiming overtime benefits. DSOF ¶ ¶ 22, 26-29, 44-50. Luster-Malone claims, however, that these justifications are pretextual: she was really fired because she is obese, and as retaliation for her anti-discrimination complaints. R. 51, Pl.'s Am. Resp. Br. at 7-8, 14-16. For the reasons discussed below, Cook County's motion for summary judgment [R. 37] is granted.

I. Background

The Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, here Luster-Malone, in deciding a motion for summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Denise Luster-Malone held several different positions at Cook County's Stroger Hospital, from 1984 to her firing in 2009, when she was a " higher administrative assistant" in the Nursing Department. Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶ ¶ 9-11; DSOF ¶ 43. During the final five years of her career with the hospital, Luster-Malone weighed around 300 pounds. DSOF ¶ 16. According to Luster-Malone, her weight did not go unnoticed: she alleges that her supervisor, Antoinette Williams, made " several derogatory remarks about her weight," including, in May 2009, that her " big fat ass needs to concentrate on losing weight or something to that effect." Am. PSOF ¶ ¶ 26-27. Although she gained a significant amount of weight following her firing, DSOF ¶ 19, neither Cook County nor Luster-Malone asserts that her weight negatively impacted her work performance or her ability to do everyday things such as cooking and cleaning, grocery shopping, dancing, or walking up and down stairs--at least during most of the time of her employment id. ¶ ¶ 17-18. As discussed below, however, toward the end of her employment with the County, Luster-Malone did have trouble walking across the parking lot at work. See R. 39-6, Def.'s Exh. F, Luster-Malone Dep. at 139 (describing how Luster-Malone had her daughter drop her off so she did not have to walk across the parking lot).

On March 30, 2009, Cook County changed its overtime policy so that certain positions were no longer eligible for overtime without prior approval, except in cases of emergency. DSOF ¶ 20; Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶ 20. Nevertheless, Luster-Malone's supervisor, Antoinette Williams, observed her filling out dates and hours on a blank request-for-overtime form that already noted the approval of two supervisors--despite the fact that, according to the County, office policy required supervisors to approve the form after it was completed. See DSOF ¶ ¶ 26-29. Luster-Malone disputes that it was necessary to obtain approval only after the overtime form was completed. Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶ ¶ 27, 29; Am. PSOF ¶ 9. Contra Def.'s Reply Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶ 27. After an investigation, Williams determined that Luster-Malone had requested reimbursement

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for 8.7 hours of overtime work that she had not performed, and had asked two other employees to say that she had been working in the Endoscopy Department / Clinic R, when in fact the two employees had not seen her there that day. DSOF ¶ ¶ 30-38. As detailed in the Analysis section below, Luster-Malone asserts that she did work the overtime (but does not specifically dispute that she called other workers and asked them to say that she was working for the Endoscopy Department / Clinic R). See also Def.'s Reply Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶ ¶ 37-38.

Williams moved for a pre-disciplinary hearing on August 19, 2009, pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and Cook County Personnel Rules, and gave Luster-Malone a letter informing her of the allegations against her. DSOF ¶ ¶ 39-40. Because Luster-Malone was out of the office on August 18 and 19, she did not receive the letter until August 20. Id. ¶ ¶ 23, 40. The day before (August 19), Luster-Malone filed a disability-discrimination complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)--on the very same day that Williams moved for a pre-disciplinary hearing. Id. ¶ ¶ 24, 40.

Luster-Malone was involved in a second incident on September 21, 2009. After being repeatedly asked to transfer certain electronic files to a flash drive, Luster-Malone returned the drive with only four files on it--leaving out the majority of the files that she had been tasked to transfer. Id. ¶ ¶ 44-49. Luster-Malone explains that although she had the drive for an hour and a half, her working time with the drive was drastically reduced when her diabetes required her to get food during this time. Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶ 45. Williams also moved for a pre-disciplinary hearing for this incident with Luster-Malone, citing a " major cause violation of Gross Insubordination and Failure to Perform Duties as Assigned of the Personnel Rules." DSOF ¶ 50.

Luster-Malone's pre-disciplinary evidentiary hearing was held on September 10, 2009, after which the hearing officer concluded that Luster-Malone had committed major fraud misconduct for her overtime incident. Id. ¶ ¶ 41-43. After a separate hearing held on October 1, 2009, the same hearing officer also concluded that she had committed a major cause violation for her flash drive incident. Id. ¶ ¶ 50-53. She was fired on October 5, 2009. Id. ¶ 43.

Pursuant to the Collecting Bargaining Agreement procedures, the issue was sent to arbitration on February 22, 2011. Id. ¶ 58. The arbitrator determined that there was cause for Luster-Malone's firing and found her testimony to be inconsistent and contradictory. Id. ¶ 61.

II. Legal Standards

Summary judgment must be granted " if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material facts and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Rule 56 " mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). All facts, and any inferences to be drawn from them, ...

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