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Travis v. City of Chicago

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

September 30, 2014

CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.


JOAN B. GOTTSCHALL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Anthony Travis, an employee of the City of Chicago, sued the City and individual defendants Michael Callahan, Emmett O'Donnell, Robert Anthony, Debbie Biniak, and Chuck Killman alleging racial discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. Now before the court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.


The parties do not dispute the following facts unless otherwise indicated.

Anthony Travis, an African-American, has been an employee of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) since December 1994. In January 1997, Travis was promoted to his current position of Senior Air Mask Technician. Travis's duties are to repair the safety equipment used by CFD members in the exercise of their life-saving duties. From 1997 onward, Plaintiff has reported to Supervising Air Mask Technician Debbie Biniak. Biniak is responsible for preparing assignment sheets and distributing the daily work assignments to individuals in Travis's role, among other duties.

Biniak reports to Robert Anthony, the Deputy District Chief of the Air Mask Division; Anthony has reported to Deputy Fire Commissioner Michael Callahan and District Chief Emmett O'Donnell. In addition to Travis, there are three other Senior Air Mask Technicians in the CFD: James Flynn, James Connolly, and James Skrocki; all three are white males. From January 1, 2008, to June 5, 2013, Travis repaired the second most pieces of equipment compared to his co-workers in the Air Mask Division.

A. City Policies

The City's express policy codified in the Municipal Code of Chicago prohibits discrimination, harassment, or retaliation based on race, color or national origin. In accordance with this policy, Chicago Fire Department employee complaints of discrimination may be submitted to the City's Office of Compliance, Department of Human Resources or to the Chicago Fire Department Internal Affairs Division.

The City's personnel rules apply to all City employees, including civilian Chicago Fire Department members. Rule XVIII, Section 1 of the Personnel Rules provides that "the City of Chicago requires that its employees perform their duties in a manner which furthers the efficiency and best interests of the City... [. T]he department head has the authority and responsibility to take disciplinary action against any employee whose conduct does not further the efficiency and the best interests of the City of Chicago." (Def.'s Local Rule 56.1(a)(3) Statement ¶ 11, ECF No. 76.) Rule XVIII, Section 1, Subsection 25 provides that insubordinate actions, including the failure to carry out a rule, order or directive related to the performance of the employee's duty, as well as assaulting, threatening, intimidating or abusing a supervisor either physically or verbally, are a cause for disciplinary action. Rule XVIII, Section 1, Subsection 50 provides that conduct unbecoming an officer or public employee is a cause for disciplinary action.

B. Suspensions

During his employment as a Senior Air Mask Technician, Travis received a one-day suspension in May 2008, a three-day suspension in June 2009, and a six-day suspension in December 2009. Travis believes that the suspensions were unwarranted.

1. May 2008 Suspension

On April 3, 26, and 30 in 2008, three CFD employees sent letters to Deputy District Chief Anthony complaining about problems with Travis's quality of repair work on CFD equipment. In the first letter, Lieutenant James Solduczyk complained that Travis had repeatedly failed to properly calibrate meters and oxygen sensors. In the second letter, Captain Lee Basile complained that Travis improperly calibrated gas meters and that Travis "did not appear to have the knowledge and expertise in dealing with this very sensitive equipment." (Def.'s Local Rule 56.1(a)(3) Statement ¶ 30, ECF No. 76.) In the third letter, Dive Coordinator Ron Dorneker complained about the quality of Travis's work repairing SCUBA equipment.

Around May 14-16, 2008, Anthony issued Travis a Notice of Progressive Discipline for violating Rule XVIII of the City's Personnel Rules.[1] Anthony recommended that Travis be issued a one-day suspension. Travis was disciplined because he had been reassigned several times from his work on several different projects due to multiple complaints about his work in the field. Within the prior two months, Travis's work on harnesses raised concerns: one of the harnesses that Travis was assigned to repair was returned with the straps assembled backwards; the SCUBA was returned with a leaking hose; and the wrong oxygen regulator was issued to an ambulance. Defendants state that Travis received a one-day suspension because of the improperly repaired equipment, although Travis denies that the suspension was warranted.

2. June 2009 Suspension

On April 21, 2009, while in the presence of other staff, Travis yelled repeatedly at Biniak, telling her to "shut up." On multiple occasions, Senior Air Mask Technicians Connolly and Flynn have witnessed Travis yell "shut up" at Biniak. On May 7, 2009, Anthony asked Travis to complete an assignment that should have been completed the day before. Travis yelled to Anthony, "Am I the only one who can do this?" On June 4, 2009, Anthony issued Travis a Notice of Progressive Discipline for violating Rule XVIII of the City's Personnel Rules and recommended a three-day suspension. The defendants state that because Travis had been counseled numerous times before on the need to complete assignments and that insubordination toward any supervision was unacceptable, a three-day suspension was issued. (Def.'s Local Rule 56.1(a)(3) Statement ¶ 39, ECF No. 76.) Travis denies that the suspension was warranted.

3. December 2009 Suspension

In December 2009, Anthony issued Travis a Notice of Progressive Discipline for violating Rule XVIII and recommended a six-day suspension. Defendants cite three reasons why Travis was suspended. First, on September 8, 2009, Biniak asked Travis to work on SCUBA units and to complete them by the end of the day. Travis responded that he was unable to start working on the SCUBA units because he was working on other equipment. Second, Travis had been repeatedly told to enter his work on a daily basis on a computer database but failed to do so. Third, Travis had previously promised to cooperate with Biniak and stop his insubordinate behavior toward her, but then failed to do so. Travis denies that the suspension was warranted and the factual basis for the defendants' third reason.

Travis hand-wrote on his December 2009 Notice of Progressive Discipline: "I have be[en] subject to racial discrimination by the Chicago Fire Department. I have been harassed and threatened by uniformed members and they are all white and nothing is ever done to them but when I complained I am punished by these same individuals." Travis gave the Notice with his handwritten comments to Anthony.

C. Reassignment to Support & Logistics Division

In 1999, Travis was temporarily detailed to the Support and Logistics Division (SLD). SLD is the division of the CFD responsible for "administrating" supplies to ambulances. Travis was again detailed to SLD from about December 21, 2009, to February 16, 2010, at which time he returned to the Air Mask facility. While on temporary detail at SLD, Travis's title, pay, and benefits remained the same.

Defendants state that the decision to detail Travis to SLD was non-disciplinary and was made to help him avoid further discipline and termination in light of his prior disciplinary actions. Travis argues that he was detailed to SLD because of his race, while other non-African-American Senior Air Mask Technicians with less seniority were not detailed. Travis is not aware of the seniority of the other non-African-American Senior Air Mask Technicians.

When Travis was initially notified of CFD's intention to detail him to SLD, he was told that he could file a grievance regarding the detail. The first time Travis was detailed to SLD, he did not complain or grieve the detail. On December 24, 2009, Travis filed a grievance to request that he be returned to the Air Mask facility based on a violation of the detailing procedure. Travis believes that Biniak denied his grievance based on Travis's race. Biniak did not sign the grievance form or participate in the denial of Travis's grievance.[2] On February 9, 2010, Travis was notified that he would be returned to the Air Mask facility on February 16, 2010.

D. Travis's Claims

On February 12, 2010, Travis filed an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of his race in violation of Title VII. Travis filed his initial complaint against the City and the individual defendants on May 7, 2010, and filed his second amended complaint on July 30, 2012. The complaint alleges violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII against the City, and violations of § 1983 against the individual defendants. Specifically, he alleges that the defendants' racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation created a hostile work environment and substantially interfered with his ability to perform his job. Travis also alleges that the City failed to adequately train and supervise its employees, which led to violations of Travis's constitutional rights.

Travis alleges that Biniak referred to African-Americans as "shines" and commented to him that a nearby parking lot was a "shine parking lot." He further alleges that Biniak told Travis that all African-Americans lived in the projects, were drug addicts, and were in gangs. Biniak denies making these remarks. Biniak allegedly talked to Travis by changing her voice to imitate what he calls "an uneducated ghetto-type African American person.'" (Pl.'s Local Rule 56.1(b)(3)(C) Statement ¶ 5, ECF No. 92.) Travis alleges that Biniak accused an African-American summer intern who had a design cut into his ...

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