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Martin v. Sutton Corporation

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

September 30, 2014

Michelle Martin, Plaintiff,
The Sutton Corporation, d/b/a Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating, An Illinois Corporation, Defendants.


THOMAS M. DURKIN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Michelle Martin ("Martin") alleges that her former employer, Defendant Sutton Corporation, d/b/a Seattle Sutton Healthy Eating ("SSHE"), discharged her in retaliation for reporting racially derogatory remarks by another employee, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. SSHE moves for summary judgment. R. 33. For the reasons below, SSHE's motion is granted.[1]

Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The Court considers the entire evidentiary record and must view all of the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences from that evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Ball v. Kotter, 723 F.3d 813, 821 (7th Cir. 2013). To defeat summary judgment, a nonmovant must produce more than "a mere scintilla of evidence" and come forward with "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Harris N.A. v. Hershey, 711 F.3d 794, 798 (7th Cir. 2013). Ultimately, summary judgment is warranted only if a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmovant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The facts are construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Ms. Martin. See Hanners v. Trent, 674 F.3d 683, 691 (7th Cir. 2012). The Court gives Martin the "benefit of conflicts in the admissible evidence and favorable inferences from that evidence" but does not vouch for them. Smith v. Bray, 681 F.3d 888, 892 (7th Cir. 2012).


Martin is a Caucasian woman. R. 38 at 2 ¶ 9. In October 2001, Martin was hired by SSHE as a maintenance supervisor. R. 38 at 1 ¶ 1. Martin was promoted to packing room supervisor in 2002 or 2003 and promoted to co-head packing room supervisor[2] one year later. Id. at 1 ¶ 2, 11 ¶ 4. In November 2005, Martin and co-workers Penni Vanderbrook, Brian Emerson, and Tammy Bridges were having a discussion about college applications in the supervisors' office. R. 38 at 3 ¶ 22. Vanderbrook and Emerson are Caucasian. Id. at 2 ¶ 9. When Vanderbrook, Martin's co-head packing room manager, id. at 1 ¶ 3, asked how [the] admissions [department] would know if an applicant was black or white, Emerson, a manager at SSHE, id. at 2 ¶ 6, laughed and responded, "Because you can spell." Id. at 3 ¶ 23. Martin believed that Emerson's response was directed at Bridges, an African-American, who was the preparation room supervisor. Id. at 2 ¶¶ 8, 10, at 4 ¶ 24.[3] Martin was offended and immediately left the building. Id. at 13 ¶ 13. Martin claims that she, Bridges, and Vanderbrook found Emerson's comment to be "very racially offensive." Id. The next day, Emerson approached Martin at the direction of Sara Herrin, the human resources director, to apologize. Id. ¶¶ 14, 16; R. 38 at 2 ¶ 5. Emerson instead "told a random story about donating clothes as a child to poor African[-]American individuals." R. 38 at 13 ¶ 14. Martin became further offended and told Emerson that she was going to inform Kathy Tuntland, a part-owner and the director of operations of SSHE, also Caucasian, of the same. Id. at 13 ¶ 14.

The next day, Martin told Tuntland, who is now deceased, about Emerson's spelling comment, that she was very offended by it, and that Emerson further offended her after he approached her that morning to apologize. R. 40 at 5 ¶ 15. Martin was also present when Bridges complained to Tuntland about the spelling comment, which she says took place before her conversation with Tuntland. Id. ¶ 17. Within a week or two, Martin also complained to Herrin about Emerson's spelling comment and told Herrin it offended her. Id. ¶ 16. Herrin is also Caucasian. R. 38 at 2 ¶ 9.

Martin was also aware of another comment that Emerson made sometime prior to the spelling comment, though she was not present for it. R. 38 at 14 ¶ 18. Bridges told Martin that Emerson saw Bridges coming out of a dark room and made a comment to her that he would not have been able to see her had she not been smiling. Id. Martin was "not as much" offended by the comment, but believed it was very offensive to Bridges, who told her that she also found the comment racially offensive. R. 39 at 12 (38:23-40:19). Martin never complained to anyone about that comment, id. at 12 (40:13-16), and did not know if Bridges ever complained. Id. at 12 (40:17-19).[4]

Martin said that she was also present when Tammy Blacklaw, who was directly below Tuntland at SSHE and to whom Martin reported in 2001, made a racial comment during a conversation between Blacklaw, Martin, and Bridges at some point during Martin's employment. R. 39 at 6 (14:1-9), 13 (43:10-44:3). Blacklaw is Caucasian. R. 38 at 2 ¶ 9. The comment was sometime before the spelling comment, though Martin does not recall the year. Id. at 13 (44:8-12). They were in the supervisor's office and Blacklaw was referring to some work her husband was doing on a car and said he "nigger-rigged" it while repairing it. Id. (42:24-44:3). Martin told Blacklaw that the word she used was offensive and Blacklaw apologized immediately. R. 38 at 14 ¶ 19, 5 ¶ 35. Martin did not complain about or report this comment to anyone at SSHE, id. ¶ 36, and did not recall Bridges saying anything to Blacklaw about it at that point. R. 39 at 13 (45:1-3).[5]

Prior to Martin's November 2005 complaint about the spelling comment, she was not required to close[6] on Tuesday and Saturdays, which meant she got off of work by 3:00 p.m. so that she could attend her daughter's baseball games. R. 40 at 5 ¶ 23; R. 39 at 16 (57:16-22). After Martin complained and when she returned from SSHE's shutdown at Christmas in 2005, she had to close on one Saturday prior to her termination in February 2006. R. 40 at 6 ¶ 24. She never complained to anyone at SSHE about the schedule change. R. 38 at 6 ¶ 44. Also after Martin's complaints about Emerson's spelling comment, Tuntland, Emerson, and Blacklaw stopped communicating with Martin. R. 40 at 6 ¶ 25. The lack of communication made it difficult for Martin to perform her job duties. Id. Additionally, prior to Martin's complaints, she performed reviews for the supervisors in the packing room. Id. at 6 ¶ 26. After her complaints, Martin no longer performed reviews of her subordinates. Id. ¶ 27. That responsibility was also taken away from Bridges. R. 38 at 6 ¶ 47.

In the fall of 2005, prior to the spelling comment, SSHE offered a paid vacation package to the head supervisors-Martin, Bridges, and Vanderbrook. R. 40 at 5 ¶ 21. Bridges and Martin chose a cruise option for their trip. Id. Martin testified that after she complained about the spelling comment, SSHE cancelled Martin's cruise in or around December 2005, although it was already been planned. R. 39 at 14 (47:17-19). Vanderbrook chose not to go on a cruise, and it is unknown if she ever went on any vacation at the time. R. 38 at 7 ¶ 56. SSHE had offered Martin a vacation package in Disney World in Florida on one other occasion in 2003 or 2004. R. 38 at 7 ¶ 52. Herrin, who was human resources director, was not aware of SSHE's offer to Martin to go on a cruise until Martin's termination hearing. R. 38 at 8 ¶ 57. Although Martin did not go on the cruise, she still received her scheduled paid time off during that time. R. 38 at 8 ¶ 58. Martin did not complain about or report that she was not able to go on the cruise to anyone at SSHE until her conversation with Herrin on the date of her termination. Id. ¶ 59.

At some point, a new performance review process for the supervisors was discussed by SSHE that would potentially change the review process from two reviews and two raises per year, to one annual review and one raise. R. 38 at 8 ¶ 62. Martin learned of the new policy when the hourly supervisors[7] inquired about it. Id. ¶ 63. Martin allowed the supervisors to meet about the new policy on performance reviews. Id. ¶¶ 68, 69. Herrin testified that Martin was unhappy about the changes in the performance review process and the timing of raises and had talked to some of the hourly supervisors about her concerns and encouraged them to sign a petition.[8] R. 37-1 at 15 (48:8-14). According to Herrin, Emerson indicated to her that Martin was instigating a rebellion and that Martin was the leader of the rebellion. Id. (49:4-13). Emerson testified that he personally observed Martin in a meeting with the supervisors. R. 38 at 9 ¶ 67. In Martin's termination meeting, Herrin alleged that Martin organized the supervisors against the company and Herrin told Martin that one of the bases for her termination was for organizing the supervisors. R. 39 at 17 (61:9-16), 18 (62:7-16).

Herrin also testified that other employees informed her of Martin's involvement in a number of conflicts with other employees and that she received complaints about Martin's behavior. Id. at 10 ¶ 75. Herrin testified that these were factors in her decision to terminate Martin. Id. Martin had previously received and signed a March 11, 2003 disciplinary report from Vanderbrook that discussed Martin's alleged improper confrontation of the crew in the packing room. Id. at 2 ¶ 15; R. 33-6 at 2-3.[9]

In 2005, even though Herrin did not personally observe Martin organizing the supervisors, Emerson informed Herrin that Martin was doing so. R. 40 at 6 ¶ 35. Herrin testified that she discussed with Emerson what disciplinary action would be appropriate for Martin based on her organizing the supervisors and instigating their rebellion. R. 37-1 at 15 (48:23-50:1). While Herrin could not recall what Emerson said, she felt that Martin should be terminated, and Emerson agreed. Id. Upon learning that information, Herrin decided to terminate Martin's employment without discussing the incident with her. R. 40 at 7 ¶ 38. No investigation was performed. Id. Martin was terminated on February 7, 2006. R. 38 at 10 ¶ 74. At her deposition, Herrin testified that in addition to Martin, both Bridges and Vanderbrook were allegedly also ...

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