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Harris v. State of Department of Corrections

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

June 18, 2014



JOAN H. LEFKOW, District Judge.

Plaintiff Pamela Harris, an African-American woman, sued her former employer the Illinois Department of Corrections ("IDOC") and three current and former IDOC employees, alleging various counts of racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981"), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"), and the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, 5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 430/1 et seq. ("the Ethics Act").[1] Defendants move for summary judgment on all claims. (Dkt. 112.) For the following reasons, summary judgment is granted in favor of defendants on all claims except for Harris's claim for retaliatory termination under Title VII and Harris's claim under the Ethics Act.[2]


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(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). To determine whether any genuine fact issue 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). In doing so, the court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007). The court may not weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations. Omnicare, Inc. v. UnitedHealth Grp., Inc., 629 F.3d 697, 704 (7th Cir. 2011).

The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of proving 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 bare pleadings alone but must 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). If a claim or defense is factually unsupported, it should be disposed of on summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24.


I. Early IDOC Employment

Harris started at IDOC as an officer at the Joliet and Stateville Correctional Centers in 1992. After working at various IDOC facilities, Harris was promoted to the position of center supervisor for the Jessie "Ma" Houston Adult Transition Center ("JMH") in Dixmoor, Illinois in 2004. In connection with this promotion, Harris became a Senior Public Service Administrator ("SPSA"). SPSAs are at-will employees that can be terminated at any time.[4] Barbara Hurt, the deputy director of the community corrections centers in JMH's area, directly supervised Harris while she was at JMH.

II. Dwight Correctional Center

After about two years at JMH, Harris was offered a position as assistant warden of operations at Dwight Correctional Center ("Dwight"), a women's facility in Dwight, Illinois. Debra Denning, the deputy director of IDOC's division of women and family services, and Toyia Sims, special assistant to the IDOC director, recruited Harris for the position.[5] Harris accepted and was transferred to Dwight in April 2006. The appointment was approved by the director of IDOC, Roger Walker.[6] Harris was the first African-American assistant warden of operations at Dwight.

A. Harris's Complaints About Dwight's Operation and Warden Sigler

While at Dwight, Harris reported directly to Dwight's warden, Mary Sigler-Quigley ("Sigler"). Sigler reported to Denning, who reported to the IDOC director, Walker.[7] Sims, who was Walker's assistant, was not in Harris's chain of command.

Soon after arriving at Dwight, Harris told Denning and Sigler that there were serious issues with Dwight's operation, including issues with chain of command, security, and inmate movement. Harris also believed that Sigler covered up major security breaches and protected white corrections officers from discipline.[8] When Harris went over Sigler's head to report these incidents directly to Denning, Harris claims she was ostracized by Dwight personnel. Harris also repeatedly complained to Sims about Sigler. Harris believed that that Sims was communicating her complaints to Walker.[9]

In October 2006, Denning called Harris and asked to discuss her complaints about Sigler. Harris testified that she told Denning that Sigler was discriminating against her and Denning responded that she knew there was a "good ole girl network" at Dwight but did not know what to do about it. (Dkt. 114, ex. 1 ("Harris Dep.") at 85:1-6.) Defendants deny that Denning made the "good ole girl" comment and deny that Harris mentioned discrimination to Denning on the phone call. ( See dkt. 123 at 13, ¶ 21; Denning dep. 101:3-102:16.)

At the end of the conversation, Denning asked Harris to write down her complaints in an email. Harris never did so. On October 19, 2006, Sigler sent Denning an email providing her perspective on the issues between her and Harris. On November 2, 2006, Denning sent an email to other IDOC employees (not including Walker) outlining the concerns that Harris had expressed about Dwight. The email lists seven examples of Harris's concerns, but the only mention of racial tension is Harris's complaint that a corrections officer at Dwight allegedly had a swastika tattoo. ( See dkt. 114 ("DSOF"), ex. 16.) Denning also wrote that both Harris and Sigler had expressed to her that they did not trust each other. ( See id. )

B. Denial of Secretarial Support

One of Harris's complaints was that Sigler refused to allow her to hire a replacement secretary when her secretary left and refused to allow Harris to use Superintendent Duane Tucker to help with administrative assignments. Harris asserts that the previous assistant warden, a Caucasian male, had been able to use Tucker.[10] Defendants dispute the claim that a replacement secretary was not hired. They argue that Tucker was busy with his own work and that Denning recommended other employees who could assist Harris. ( See dkt. 123 at 9, ¶ 15; Denning dep. at 66:20-27:18; 83:19-84:5; 153:14-21.)

C. Inmate Confinement Incident and Oral Reprimand

On November 21, 2006, Harris disciplined a Dwight inmate by asking an officer to put the inmate in a cell without access to water or a toilet. When asked later about what to do with the inmate, Harris told the officer she would call back. She did not call back, and the inmate remained in the cell for five hours. A few days later, the inmate complained to Sigler and Sigler asked the inmate to write a letter detailing the incident. Sigler forwarded the letter to Denning because she did not have authority to discipline Harris. Denning forwarded the letter to an external investigator. The investigation concluded that Harris violated IDOC rules by confining an inmate for an extraordinary length of time and failing to write a disciplinary report. Walker's office instructed Denning to give Harris an oral reprimand based on her actions, which Denning did on April 13, 2007. The reprimand did not result in a reduction in pay or benefits, but record of it was placed in Harris's personnel file.

D. Racial Slur Incident

On December 11, 2006, Harris received a report from a shift commander that a corrections officer called Harris a racial slur. Harris relayed the report to Sigler. Sigler assigned Lieutenant Winters[11] to investigate. Winters concluded that it was "her word against her word." (Dkt. 116 ("PSOF") at 23-24, ¶ 45.) The next week Sigler referred the incident to the external investigations and intelligence department of IDOC. The resulting investigative report concluded that the allegation could not be substantiated. ( See DSOF, ex. 27.)

E. Kicking Incident

On December 21, 2006, Harris received a report from an inmate that a corrections officer had kicked the inmate a couple days earlier. Harris reported the incident to Denning and prepared an incident report. Harris alleged that Sigler took steps to cover up the incident. An investigation by the IDOC external investigation department resulted in the discipline of one officer. Denning emailed external investigations and requested that they also investigate Harris's allegations of Sigler's cover-up and a botched investigation. ( See DSOF, ex. 25.) Denning suggested in the same email that she could temporarily reassign Sigler to another facility until the investigation was complete. ( Id. ) The external investigations and intelligence department declined to investigate further. ( Id. ) Harris noted to Denning that the treatment of the officer who kicked the inmate differed from the treatment of an African-American officer who immediately was locked out when he was accused of sexual harassment.[12] See supra, n.9.

F. Complaints to John Harris and Illinois Senator Mattie Hunter

In January 2007, Harris toured the Illinois governor's office and spoke to Governor Blagojevich and his aide, John Harris. She testified that she told the Governor and John Harris that "there was a lot of discrimination against African-Americans at Dwight Correctional Center and a lot of illegal practices at Dwight" and that she "was being harassed." (Harris dep. at 117:6-10; 118:19-24.) John Harris never followed up with Harris about her complaints and Harris does not know whether the Governor or John Harris did anything with the information or whether anyone at IDOC was informed of her communications with the Governor and John Harris. ( Id. at 119:1-20.)

Later the same day, Harris attended a reception and met Illinois State Senator Mattie Hunter. Harris testified that she told Senator Hunter that things at Dwight were not good. (Harris dep. 120:4-7.) Harris did not say anything further at the reception but testified that she followed up with an email to Senator Hunter that described issues at Dwight. ( Id. at 120:8-16.) Harris does not recall what she included in the email to Senator Hunter. ( Id. at 120:17-24.) Senator Hunter did not respond to the email and Harris testified that she did not know if Senator Hunter did anything with the email.[13] ( Id. at 121:1-6.)

G. Performance Evaluation

In early 2007, Denning and Sigler were asked to prepare a performance evaluation of Harris for the time she was at Dwight in 2006-2007.[14] Sigler prepared an initial draft of the evaluation and rated Harris as "unacceptable." Denning disagreed with this rating and it was changed to "acceptable." Sigler testified that she believed Denning's superiors were responsible for changing the rating. ( See Sigler dep. at 42:13-46:25.) Because Harris received an acceptable rating, her merit-based raise was less than it would have been if she had been ranked "accomplished" or "exceptional." ( See Denning dep. at 73:5-7.) The highest possible ranking, "exceptional, " would have been accompanied by a $200 per month raise. Harris's "acceptable" rating garnered a $100 per month raise.

Harris received the evaluation on May 3, 2007. Harris disagreed with the assessment and filed a rebuttal the next day.

III. Transfer Back To JMH

In February 2007, Walker, the IDOC director, asked Denning about the situation at Dwight and the relationship between Sigler and Harris. Denning told him that she had been unable to build a team at Dwight and that Harris was unhappy. Walker informed Denning that he was likely going to transfer Harris back to JMH. On February 26, 2007, Denning sent an email to Walker's executive assistant and other IDOC executives about Harris's concerns with Dwight's operation. ( See PSOF, ex. F.) In the email Denning detailed Harris's concerns about inmate treatment (including allegations that an inmate was called a racist slur) and the fact that Harris did not trust Sigler and thought she covered for her friends. ( Id. ) Denning noted that she had raised Harris's concerns to IDOC executives and had confirmed that there had been no increase in inmate complaints at Dwight. ( Id. ) She also observed that Harris had performed unscheduled inspections at Dwight and had not noted any inmate concerns after these inspections. ( Id. ) Walker's assistant responded, "The director has told me he will address all issues regarding Harris." ( Id. )

On or around February 27, 2007, one of Walker's assistants called Harris and directed her to report to JMH on March 1, 2007 where she would be the assistant supervisor. Back at JMH, Harris reported to Darryl Coleman, the acting supervisor of JMH. Coleman reported to Hurt.[15] Hurt had been Harris's direct supervisor during Harris's previous stint as supervisor of JMH. Walker appointed Tucker, an African-American, to Harris's former position as assistant warden of operations at Dwight.

Harris testified that she later discussed her transfer to JMH with Sims and Sims told Harris, "You overstepped your boundaries." (Harris dep. at 109:6-12.) Sims confirmed that she told Harris that she had overstepped her bounds and should pick her battles and that Harris complained of ...

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