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Weitzman v. Maywood

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

August 29, 2014

DIANE WEITZMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
MAYWOOD, MELROSE PARK, BROADVIEW SCHOOL DISTRICT 89, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JAMES F. HOLDERMAN, District Judge.

On February 14, 2013, plaintiff Diane Weitzman ("Weitzman") filed a single-count complaint ("Complaint") (Dkt. No. 1 ("Compl.")) against defendants Maywood, Illinois ("Maywood"), Melrose Park, Illinois ("Melrose Park"), and Broadview School District 89 ("District 89") (collectively, "Defendants"), alleging Defendants violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634 ("ADEA") by discriminating against Weitzman on the basis of her age. Specifically, Weitzman's Complaint alleges that her age was the motivating factor in Defendants' decision not to renew her contract to serve as the principal at Lincoln Elementary School. (Compl. ¶¶ 10-12, 17.)

Before the court is Weitzman's motion for sanctions for spoliation of evidence. (Dkt. No. 37.) Weitzman seeks an inference that recordings from District 89 board meetings, which District 89 destroyed, contained information adverse to District 89 in this case. ( Id. at 6.) For the reasons explained below, Weitzman's motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

Weitzman, who is now 67 years old, began working for District 89 in 1991. (Compl. ¶ 5.) From 2004 to February 2012, Weitzman served as the principal at Lincoln Elementary School in District 89. In February 2012, District 89 informed all of its principals, including Weitzman, that it would not renew their contracts. Instead, as part of a larger restructuring of the school district, District 89's principals would have to reapply for their positions. ( Id. ¶ 8.) On June 29, 2012, District 89 declined to rehire Weitzman and reassigned her to teach second grade as a "team teacher" at a different school in Melrose Park, Illinois. ( Id. ¶ 5.) Weitzman was not the only principal District 89 decided not to rehire. According to the Complaint, District 89 did not rehire eight other principals, all of whom were over 40 years old, and replaced the principals with younger hires. ( Id. ¶¶ 11-13.)

On August 13, 2012, Weitzman filed an age discrimination charge with the EEOC. ( Id. ¶ 14, Ex. A.) Weitzman's EEOC complaint states that she was "demoted and then discharged, " "replaced by a younger less qualified individual, " and "discriminated against because of age." ( Id. Ex. A.) On November 15, 2012, the EEOC issued Weitzman a "right to sue" letter. (Compl. Ex. B.) On February 14, 2013, one day after the 90-day limitation period expired, Weitzman filed her Complaint in this court.[1] (Compl.)

Members of District 89's board have testified that they discussed the decision not to renew the eight principals' contracts during closed session meetings on November 10, 2011, December 21, 2011, January 12, 2012, January 30, 2012, and April 19, 2012. (Dkt. 41, Ex. 7, at 30:4-33:11; Ex. 8, 29:9-31:4.)[2] Under Illinois law, District 89 is required to tape record any board meetings held in a closed session, including the five meetings held between 2011 and 2012 ("Board Recordings"). 5 ILCS 120/2.06(a). Illinois law also requires District 89 to maintain the Board Recordings for at least 18 months, after which time the recordings may be destroyed. Id. § 2.06(c). Although Weitzman filed an EEOC charge on August 13, 2012 and filed the instant lawsuit on February 14, 2013, District 89 adhered to its destruction schedule and destroyed the relevant Board Recordings between May and October of 2013. (Dkt. No. 56 at 1.)

Weitzman argues that District 89 should be sanctioned with an adverse inference for destroying the Board Recordings long after Weitzman filed her EEOC charge and the instant lawsuit. (Dkt. No. 56 at 1.)

LEGAL STANDARD

A court may impose discovery sanctions pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2) after the violation of a court order or under its own "inherent power to impose sanctions for the abuse of the judicial system, including the failure to preserve or produce documents." Northington v. H & M Int'l, No. 08-6297, 2011 WL 663055, at * 12 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 12, 2011) (Mason, M.J.); see also Barnhill v. United States, 11 F.3d 1360, 1367 (7th Cir. 1993) (stating that this power stems from a court's authority to manage its own affairs). The analysis is the same under either standard. Danis v. USN Commn'cs, Inc., No. 98-7482, 2000 WL 1694325, at *30 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 20, 2000) (Schenkier, M.J.).

When a party first reasonably foresees that litigation is on the horizon, it must suspend its ordinary policies governing how information is retained or destroyed and put into place a litigation hold to preserve relevant material. Krumwiede v. Brighton Assocs., L.L.C., No. 05-3003, 2006 WL 1308629, at *8 (N.D. Ill. May 8, 2006) (Ashman, M.J.) (citing Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 220 F.R.D. 212, 218 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)). This extends to all evidence that is discoverable under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26. Wiginton v. Ellis, No. 02-6832, 2003 WL 22439865, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Oct.27, 2003) (Andersen, J.).

In analyzing whether sanctions are appropriate, a court looks to three factors: (1) the existence of a breach of the duty to preserve or produce documents; (2) the level of culpability for the breach; and (3) the prejudice that results from the breach. Danis, 2000 WL 1694325, at *31. Sanctions can be imposed on a finding of bad faith, willfulness, or fault, Brandt v. Vulcan, Inc., 30 F.3d 752, 756 (7th Cir. 1994), and are proper only when a party knew or had reason to know that litigation was on the horizon, Trask-Morton v. Motel 6 Operating L.P., 534 F.3d 672, 681 (7th Cir. 2008).

Fault can suffice for less harsh sanctions, but bad faith is required for a severe sanction such as dismissal or an adverse inference. Norman-Nunnery v. Madison Area Tech. Coll., 625 F.3d 422, 428 (7th Cir. 2010) ("In order to draw an inference that the missing documents contained information adverse to the defendants, [Plaintiff] must demonstrate that the defendants intentionally destroyed the documents in bad faith."). The crucial element is not whether a party failed to preserve documents, but the reason the documents were destroyed. Faas v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 532 F.3d 633, 644 (7th Cir. 2008).

In this context, bad faith means "destruction for the purpose of hiding adverse information." Mathis v. John Morden Buick, Inc., 136 F.3d 1153, 1155 (7th Cir.1998). This can be shown by conduct that is either intentional or reckless. See, e.g., Long v. Steepro, 213 F.3d 983, 987 (7th Cir.2000) (stating that "willfulness and bad faith are associated with conduct that is intentional or reckless"); Rosenthal Collins Group, LLC v. Trading Technologies Int'l, Inc., No. 05-4088, 2011 WL ...


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